Bright orange, silvery blue, variegated yellow and green — winter squashes are lighting up our farmers market stalls.
They can be big as a basketball or the size of a plump apple, but there really is no need to think too hard about which squash to haul home. Unlike summery tomatoes, sweet corn and peas, which all need immediate attention, squash will wait patiently, displayed on front steps, until ready to cook. And though the varieties of squash vary slightly in texture and taste, they all cook up to be mild and creamy. Winter squash is a most accommodating vegetable: Simmer it into Indian curries, African stews, Asian stir-fries, Italian ravioli, Mexican soups, savory potpies and sumptuous sweets.
At our farmers markets and co-ops, you'll find a wide selection of heirloom squash as well as newer varieties that have been bred for flavor. All are members of the Cucurbitaceae family, which consists of more than 1,000 species of squash, gourds, watermelon, cucumbers, winter melons and gherkins. Given our interest in nativist eating, we're rediscovering this indigenous vegetable that was nourishing people well before colonists arrived.
Our locally grown squash is the freshest, and because squash shells toughen with age, these will be the easiest to peel and taste the best. The peak season for squash is October through November, so get to the markets soon. You want to select winter squash that feels heavy for its size, is hard and deeply colored and free of blemishes. The variations in color relate to the variety, not to flavor or maturity. A half-pound of winter squash yields about a single serving.
All you need to prepare squash is a very sharp knife. To start, cut about a quarter of an inch off both ends of the squash so it doesn't slip. Stand it up on one of those ends and lop it in half from top to bottom. This provides a solid base that won't slip and slide around the cutting board. Next, scoop out the seeds (save them for roasting if you wish) and discard the gunk. The skins of a fresh butternut, honeynut and red kuri squash are tender enough that they really don't need to be removed; you can peel acorn and others with a vegetable peeler, but I often don't bother. They, too, will soften as they cook.
Regardless of the variety, roasting squash is a surefire method that yields sweet, tender results. Unless you're planning to make pie or muffins, cooked squash is best enhanced with the savory notes of soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, Parmesan cheese, rosemary, sage, curry or red pepper flakes. A splash of lemon or lime always perks things up, too.
Acorn and butternut squash are familiar, reliable friends, but be sure to check out some of the lesser-known varieties now at farmers markets.
Honeynut squash looks just like a mini butternut squash, with deeper orange flesh that's intensely sweet, caramel-y, and malt-like when roasted.
Lakota, the Native American heirloom squash, is deep green with a brilliant orange flesh that roasts up to be lush, creamy and very mild.
Silver Moon, a stunning round pumpkin, lives up to its name with a glowing shell. The flesh is a shocking reddish-orange and its plump seeds roast up into a crispy snack.
A sheet pan full of roasted squash is one easy step to a week of fall dinners. Nutty, slightly sweet and shamelessly versatile, winter squash adds body and warmth to cozy meals.
Toasting squash seeds
We don't think twice about toasting pumpkin seeds, but seeds from any squash are worth the effort. After removing, place the seeds into a colander and run under cold water to remove any remaining squash flesh. Transfer the seeds to a clean kitchen towel and pat dry. Place the seeds on a parchment-lined baking sheet and drizzle with a small amount of oil (about 1 teaspoon per 1/2 cup of seeds). Season with a pinch or so of coarse salt. Spread the seeds in a single layer on the baking sheet and toast in a 350-degree oven until just brown, stirring occasionally, for about 20 to 25 minutes. Remove and allow to cool right on the baking sheets. Store in an airtight container.
Squash and Mushroom Potpie
Serves 4 to 6.
Note: Roast up an extra batch of squash for pasta, soups and salads to enjoy later in the week. Here, it's nestled with meaty mushrooms and bright red Italian frying peppers (they're longer and skinnier than bell peppers) under a simple lattice crust. You can make your own pastry — see recipe below — or rely on frozen. Puff pastry sheets or phyllo would work beautifully, too. Note that the heavy cream is optional, but it does enrich the dish. From Beth Dooley.
• 2 1/2 lb. squash (butternut, honeynut, acorn or delicata), seeded and cut into 1-in. chunks
• 1 tbsp. olive or vegetable oil
• Coarse salt
• 3 tbsp. unsalted butter
• 1 small shallot, chopped
• 2 cloves garlic, smashed
• 8 oz. cremini mushrooms, sliced
• 1 large red Italian frying pepper, seeded, deveined and finely diced
• 1 tbsp. chopped fresh thyme
• 2 tsp. chopped fresh sage
• Pinch grated nutmeg
• 1/4 c. white wine, or more if needed
• 2 to 3 tbsp. heavy cream, optional (see Note)
• Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
• Pinch red pepper flakes
• 2 tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese
• 1 (9-in.) pie crust, cut into 2- to 3-in. strips (see recipe)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, toss the squash with the oil and spread out on the baking sheet, making sure the pieces don't touch. Sprinkle with a coarse salt. Roast until the squash is nicely browned and tender, shaking the pan occasionally, about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove and set aside.
In a medium skillet over medium-high heat, melt the butter. When it begins to foam and turn golden, add the shallot, garlic, mushrooms and the pepper. Cook, stirring, about 2 minutes. Cover the pan and cook until the mushrooms have released their juices. Remove the cover and continue cooking until the mushrooms are very tender, about 5 to 8 minutes. Sprinkle with thyme, sage and nutmeg and continue cooking until the liquid has evaporated. Deglaze the pan with the wine, scraping up the brown bits that stick to the bottom. Swirl in the cream, if using, and continue cooking until the liquid is reduced to a thick glaze. Season with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes and toss in the Parmesan cheese.
Transfer the squash and mushroom mix to a 9- by 13-inch baking dish and then cover with strips of the dough. Return to the oven and continue baking until the crust is nicely browned, about 15 to 18 minutes.
Savory Butter Crust
Makes 1 (9-inch) pie crust.
• 1 1/4 c. flour
• 1/4 tsp. fine salt
• 1/2 c. (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
• 3 to 5 tbsp. ice water
In a food processor, pulse together the flour and salt, and then pulse in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add in the ice water, one tablespoon at a time, and pulse until the dough is crumbly, but holds together when squeezed. Add more ice water if necessary. Form the dough into a disk and wrap tightly in plastic. Refrigerate for an hour.
On a floured surface, roll out the dough into 1/8-inch thickness. Cut into 2- to 3-inch strips. Lay over the top of potpie filling.
Beth Dooley is the author of "The Perennial Kitchen." Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.