Winter squash is the sort of thing I rarely cook because I rarely think about it, and when I do cook it, I always wonder why I don’t think about it more often.
It’s just that good: nutty and hearty and supremely satisfying. It’s a little bit sweet, like a softer version of a sweet potato, and I rarely cook sweet potatoes because I never think about them, either.
Winter squash is the general term for a large number of varieties of squash, but the most common are butternut squash, acorn squash and spaghetti squash. Basically, if it is squash and it has a thick skin and it’s harder to cut than you think it’s going to be, it’s probably winter squash.
Even so, if you want to be technical about it — or even accurate — winter squash is neither grown nor harvested in the winter. We just eat it now because it can easily be kept fresh throughout the season.
That butternut squash that you buy today was picked last fall, but it is just as scrumptious as it was when it came off the vine.
You can eat winter squash plain or pair it with cheese, butter, maple syrup or brown sugar — basically anything to take advantage of its natural taste of sweet nuts.
You can turn it into soup, but I’ve made a lot of soup this winter, and I’m getting a little tired of it. You can even turn it into ice cream.
I turned it into ice cream, and it was shockingly delicious. But ice cream is for dessert, so I am going to talk about it last. You have to eat your vegetables, by which I mean your winter squash, before you can have dessert.
At least the vegetables are first rate.
I began with the simplest and probably the most common method of making it: I roasted an acorn squash with a little butter. That is excellent as it is, but frankly it is a little too easy for a food story, so I dressed it up in the tiniest possible way by adding honey to the butter.
It tasted like when you have been shoveling snow for too long and you are practically frozen solid and you come inside and you want something soft and substantial and filling to warm you thoroughly from the bottom of your soul to the tips of your hair. That’s what it tasted like, only with a little honey.
I stayed on the sweeter end of the spectrum with my next dish. Butter is a must when roasting winter squash, and maple syrup is one of the classic ingredients to pair with it. But I went one step further, bringing out the squash’s caramel notes by adding a bit of bourbon. I mixed it all together to make a bourbon-maple glaze that was, if I may be a little immodest, spectacular.
And I didn’t stop there, though you may want to (and it is absolutely delicious the way it is). I borrowed a Swedish method for baking potatoes and used it on the squash. I made numerous thin slices most of the way through the squash so it resembled an accordion, or perhaps a file cabinet. That way, when I brushed the glaze across the top, it ran down between each slice.
It tasted as good as it looked, and it looked amazing.
The next dish, Parmesan-Butternut Squash Gratin, is a strictly savory offering. The squash — butternut, again — is roasted, but this time it is coated in garlicky butter and a mixture of panko bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese.
The squash is sliced thin, so the butter and garlic really permeate each piece, and the panko-and-Parmesan mixture on top adds a most delightful crunch. It is a most agreeable and even comforting dish.
I stayed in the savory realm with my next dish, Spaghetti Squash and Bacon Fritters. I always find spaghetti squash frustrating because, although it looks cool and fun to eat, it tastes like air. And you can’t fool me by putting spaghetti sauce on it, because then it just tastes like strands of air with spaghetti sauce.
But fritters? Fritters are something else. I mixed the spaghetti squash strands with eggs, flour, Parmesan cheese, green onions and chopped bacon, and then I fried discs of the mixture in olive oil.
Essentially, I made potato pancakes with spaghetti squash — and I even served it with a topping of sour cream with chopped green onions.
I’ll never look at spaghetti squash the same way again.
And then there was the ice cream, butternut squash ice cream. It doesn’t have a big, big flavor of squash, and the taste is perfectly complemented by a good hit of cinnamon — another ingredient that always goes well with butternut squash.
It takes some effort to make. You first have to roast the squash with a little butter while you also steep cinnamon sticks in milk. You purée the squash as smooth as you can (a food processor works well for this), and then make a custard from the cinnamon-infused milk, egg yolks, sugar and just enough heavy cream. Then you mix the puréed squash with the custard, let the mixture chill overnight and then freeze it in an ice-cream maker.
A lot of work, yes, but it is easily one of the best ice creams I have ever made — and it tastes like butternut squash.
I really ought to remember to cook with that more often.
HASSELBACK BUTTERNUT SQUASH WITH MAPLE-BOURBON GLAZE
Yield: 8 servings
1 large butternut squash
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper
3 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup maple syrup
1 tablespoon bourbon
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Peel the squash with a vegetable peeler, removing both the peel and the thin white flesh below it. Slice the squash in half lengthwise and remove the seeds and fiber. Rub all over with oil, and season with salt and pepper. Place in a single layer in a baking dish.
2. Cook until squash is just starting to soften, about 15 to 18 minutes. Meanwhile, melt butter in small saucepan together with syrup and bourbon; keep warm over low heat.
3. Remove squash from oven and, when cool enough to handle, cut thin, deep slices in a half-moon shape without going all the way through the flesh. Return to baking dish, cut-side up, and brush all over with glaze. Continue to roast, basting with glaze every 10 minutes or so until squash is tender and a deep golden brown, 45 to 60 minutes.
Per serving: 138 calories; 6 g fat; 3 g saturated fat; 11 mg cholesterol; 1 g protein; 21 g carbohydrate; 9 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 297 mg sodium; 70 mg calcium. Recipe by Daniel Neman.
SPAGHETTI SQUASH AND BACON FRITTERS
Yield: 8 servings
1 medium or large spaghetti squash
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
5 green onions (2 of them optional), chopped, divided
1/4 plus 1/8 teaspoon salt
5 strips of bacon, cooked and chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup sour cream, optional
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Cut squash into halves and scoop out seeds and fiber. Spray the cut side of each half and a baking sheet with cooking spray (or lightly oil each) and place the squash on the baking sheet, cut-side down.
2. Bake until cooked through and soft, 30 to 40 minutes. Cool cut-side up (it will be faster that way). Scrape squash with a fork to remove flesh in long strands. You will need 3 cups of the cooked squash; reserve the rest for another use. Place strands in several layers of paper towels and wring out as much liquid as you can. It will be easier to do this in several batches. At this point, the squash may be refrigerated for up to 5 days.
3. In a medium or large bowl, beat eggs until thoroughly blended. Add flour and beat until blended. Add squash, Parmesan cheese, 3 of the chopped green onions and salt. Beat very well until the mixture has a uniform consistency. Add chopped bacon and mix to combine.
4. Heat a large skillet on medium-high heat until very hot, almost smoking. Add oil. Drop about 3 tablespoons of the batter into the oil for each fritter, flattening with a spatula; make 4 fritters at a time. Cook until the bottom is golden brown, about 1 to 2 minutes. Flip and cook until bottom is golden brown, another 1 to 2 minutes. Remove to paper towels to drain.
5. If desired, mix sour cream with remaining 2 chopped green onions and serve on the side.
Per serving: 194 calories; 14 g fat; 5 g saturated fat; 64 mg cholesterol; 7 g protein; 10 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 307 mg sodium; 98 mg calcium. Adapted from juliasalbum.com.
ROASTED WINTER SQUASH
Yield: 4 servings
1 large butternut squash or 2 acorn squashes
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Cut squash in half lengthwise and remove seeds; place squash, cut side up, on prepared baking sheet. Melt butter and honey together in small pan or in the microwave. Brush butter-honey mixture on cut side of squash. Sprinkle with salt and a few grinds of pepper. Bake, uncovered, 1 hour or until tender. Let cool 10 minutes before serving.
Per serving: 179 calories; 6 g fat; 4 g saturated fat; 15 mg cholesterol; 3 g protein; 33 g carbohydrate; 10 g sugar; 5 g fiber; 302 mg sodium; 122 mg calcium. Adapted from a recipe from Southern Living.
PARMESAN-BUTTERNUT SQUASH GRATIN
Yield: 6 servings
1 (2½-pound) butternut squash
4 tablespoons butter
2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/4 cup panko bread crumbs
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spray 13-by-9-inch baking dish with cooking spray or grease with additional butter. Peel, halve lengthwise and seed squash; cut into 1/2-inch thick slices. Arrange with slices overlapping slightly in baking dish; it will be easier to start with the small end of the squash.
2. Melt butter in a small saucepan and reduce heat to low. Add garlic; cook 2 to 3 minutes, stirring frequently, until garlic is soft and butter is infused with garlic flavor. Do not let butter brown.
3. In a small bowl, mix bread crumbs, cheese and 1 tablespoon of the butter-garlic mixture.
4. Brush squash slices with remaining butter-garlic mixture. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and bread-crumb mixture.
5. Bake uncovered 30 to 40 minutes or until squash is tender when pierced with a fork. Increase oven temperature to 425 degrees; bake 5 to 10 minutes longer or until lightly browned. Before serving, sprinkle parsley on top.
Per serving: 192 calories; 9 g fat; 6 g saturated fat; 24 mg cholesterol; 4 g protein; 26 g carbohydrate; 4 g sugar; 4 g fiber; 215 mg sodium; 164 mg calcium. Recipe from BettyCrocker.com.
BUTTERNUT SQUASH ICE CREAM
Yield: 6 servings (1 quart)
1 small (1½ pounds) butternut squash; peeled, seeded and cut into 2-inch pieces
1 tablespoon butter
2½ cups whole milk
5 cinnamon sticks
½ cup plus 1/4 cup and 3 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided
½ cup heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon salt
5 egg yolks
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Place the squash in a roasting pan and dot with pieces of butter. Cover with foil and roast until very tender, about 45 minutes. Let cool for 15 minutes. Purée in a food processor until very smooth. Measure out 1 1/2 cups of the purée and place in a large bowl; discard the remaining purée or save for another use.
3. While the squash is roasting, combine the milk and cinnamon sticks in a medium sauce pot. Bring almost to a boil. Remove from the heat and cover; let stand for 30 minutes. Remove the cinnamon sticks and measure out 2 cups of the milk; discard the remaining milk or reserve for another use.
4. In a medium sauce pot, combine the 2 cups of cinnamon-infused milk, 1/2 cup of the sugar, cream and salt. Bring to a boil. Meanwhile, whisk together the egg yolks and remaining 1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar in a bowl. When the milk comes to a boil, slowly pour it into the egg yolks, whisking constantly. Return to the pot and cook over medium-low heat, whisking constantly, until slightly thickened, about 7 to 10 minutes. Do not let the mixture boil.
5. Strain the custard into the bowl with the butternut squash. Whisk to combine. Refrigerate overnight.
6. Process in an ice-cream maker according to the manufacturer’s directions.
Per serving: 290 calories; 9 g fat; 5 g saturated fat; 27 mg cholesterol; 5 g protein; 51 g carbohydrate; 39 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 149 mg sodium; 199 mg calcium. Recipe by Matthew Petersen, via jamesbeard.org.