On slate gray mornings, the light of the farmers market shines on heaps of winter squash, in all its varieties. There are golden flecked, neon orange, variegated green, squat, oblong and round squash that inspire all manner of dishes for an autumn kitchen.
Winter squash, the hard-rind siblings of summer squash, are key to velvety soups, hearty casseroles, pastas and dessert. Harvested in the fall, the term winter connotes their storing qualities; they will last in a cold dark cupboard until early spring. But once the squash is cut, it’s best kept unwrapped in the refrigerator. Plastic makes it sweat and turn gummy.
When just out of the field, the squash’s flavor is at its peak, and the peel is less tough than later in the year. Now is prime time for our local squash. At the market, look for squash that are blemish- and bruise-free, with an intact stem and that feel heavy for their size.
I am partial to the thinned-skinned butternut and delicata squashes. They are easy to seed, slice and dice. The butternut squash’s long neck is all flesh; the seeds are in that squash’s bulbous bottom end. Butternut’s flavor is slightly sweet and earthy and its texture lush and creamy. Delicata is small and the peel is very tender, a bit sweeter but less dense than the butternut.
I’m too impatient to wait for squash to roast in the oven and have found that, if diced into relatively small pieces, winter squash can be roasted just as well in a skillet or frying pan. The method steams the squash in its own juices and then pan-roasts the pieces so they turn caramelized and crisp. In several minutes, you have a hearty side dish or the makings of a satisfying entree.
You might toss the squash with crumbled sausage to serve with a side of crusty bread, stir it into a coconut curry, layer it into lasagna, toss it with pasta and plenty of cheese. Pan-roasted squash is delicious in a salad with nuts and dried cranberries, too.
Be sure to make a little extra, because it’s best eaten with your fingers right out of the pan sprinkled with red pepper flakes and a generous squirt of lime.
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.