Sweet or savory —winter squash is true comfort

By: Gloria Young Home & Garden
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When those dreary days of winter seem never ending, it’s nice to know there’s a bright orange piece of heaven to perk you up. Pureed in soups, baked in a pie, or diced for salads, winter squash is heart-warmingly versatile. When you think of winter squash, most likely visions of butternut and acorn — the most well known — come to mind. But there are many other varieties. In Wheatland, James Muck of Jim’s Produce grows four kinds — butternut, blue ballet Hubbard, buttercup and winter luxury sugar pumpkin. And he has great things to say about each of them. Muck, who sells produce at the Foothill Farmers Market in Auburn on Saturdays, says Butternut is popular because almost everyone knows how to prepare it, he said. The blue ballet Hubbard, which he describes as shaped like a Hershey’s Kiss, is drier and meatier. “It’s blue gray, bigger than an acorn squash and has bright orange flesh,” Muck said. The Hubbard can be hard to work with because it is very wobbly. So Muck suggests poking a hole in it and baking it at about 325 degrees for an hour. Then slice it open, scoop out the seeds and prepare it per recipe instructions. For the simplest dish, he recommends adding salt and pepper and butter and then mashing it like potatoes. The dark blue-green buttercup is round with a flat top and fairly flat bottom. “It almost looks like a little squatty tootsie roll,” Muck said. “This one tends to be not as sweet as butternut, but sweeter than Hubbard.” Unfortunately his customers likely won’t see many of those this year, because they were the gophers’ favorite, he said. Considering fresh pumpkin for holiday pies? Tough, fibrous jack-o-lantern pumpkins aren’t the answer. Instead, choose the sugar pumpkin. The type Muck grows is orange with a silvery whitish netting over it. “They’re an heirloom variety and pretty rare,” he said. At Newcastle Produce in Newcastle, winter squash choices range from the small honeyboat to basketball-size pumpkin varieties. Honeyboat, a sweet squash, is shop owner Jan Thompson’s favorite. “It gives you one or two servings,” she said. “It’s similar to a delicata variety in taste.” For the oval, bright yellow spaghetti squash, Thompson suggests punching a hole in it and baking it at 375 degrees for an hour or steaming it for an hour. Then cut it open, remove the seeds and scoop out the pulp, which comes out like strings of pasta. Serve it with your favorite pasta sauce. The Kabocha is most commonly seen it its dark green variety. But Thompson has some of the much rarer bright orange ones. “It’s a good baking squash,” she said. “It’s drier than acorn and butternut and it has a rich, meaty flavor.” The sweet meat — blue gray in color and fairly large — is also very tasty. And, of course, there’s the acorn, which works particularly well for stuffing and baking. Thompson suggests using rice and sausage, meatloaf or — for a sweet dish — butter, pecans and brown sugar. Her selection also includes the lumina white pumpkin, which can be carved for Halloween, but also works well in pies, Thompson said. While pumpkin in a can works very well for pies, Thompson suggests making one with fresh ingredients. Any of the squash varieties will do. “The flavor will be fresher,” she said. “But the color may not be as dark. If you want a darker pie, you might want to go with something like butternut.” Not sure if the squash will taste good in a pie? There’s an easy solution. “If you like eating the squash plain, guaranteed it will make a nice pie for you,” she said. ------------ WInter squash — preparation tips • Storage and shelf life Typically, the harvest season runs from mid-September to late November, and most squash will last until spring or even early summer. “That is typical of most, but not all winter squash,” Jim Muck said in an e-mail. “Acorn squash does not store very well for long periods, but pretty much all the other types store well for months. The key is to keep them cool (about 40 degrees or less but above freezing), dry, and out of the sunlight.” “In fact, some squash gets a little better with age,” Jan Thompson said. “Butternut tends to get sweeter over the three or four weeks after they’re picked.” • Seeds “Some chefs think that cooking squash with the seeds intact improves the flavor,” Muck said. Looking for some snack food? Roast the seeds whole, then shell them and eat them. • Microwaving Winter squash is also microwaveable, but be sure to add a quarter-inch to a half-inch of water. • water or dry? Adding water to the pan when baking squash will create a smoother texture. While cooking it dry will produce a chewier surface, which Thompson prefers. When preparing squash or pumpkin for pie, after baking or steaming it, Thompson suggests putting the meat in a colander to let it drain for a while. ---------- Potato & Butternut Squash Gratin Editor’s note: Newcastle Produce Chef Chelsea Federwitz provided this recipe for butternut squash. Ingredients: 5 large Yukon Gold or Yellow Finn Potatoes 2 butternut squash 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon pepper 2 cups shredded cheddar or swiss cheese 2 cups heavy cream Directions: Peel and slice potatoes 1/8-inch thick. Peel, seed and slice squash 1/8-inch thick. Put a layer of potatoes in a 9 x 13 baking dish. Lightly salt and pepper. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup cheese and 1/4 cup cream. Add a layer of squash, lightly salt and pepper. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup cheese and 1/4 cup cream. Repeat potato, squash, cheese and cream layers making a total of 4 layers of potatoes and squash. Top with cream and cheese. Cover with foil. Bake at 350 degrees for one hour and 20 minutes.