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Winter Squash: Not Just for Decorating

Not too long ago, the only winter squash that most people were familiar with were butternut, acorn, and spaghetti squash-- and of course Jack-O'Lantern pumpkins for Halloween. Today, a glance at even your average local grocery store or garden center is likely to reveal a wide variety of unfamiliar shapes, sizes and colors of winter squash.

If you are a gardener, you may have noticed catalogs or garden centers selling seeds for some of these unusual squash. Some of you more adventurous types may have grown some of them. But I have found in working with gardeners, that more often than you might think people are hesitant to grow varieties of vegetables that they are unfamiliar with.

It does make sense to me that you might hesitate to grow a squash that you know little about. They take up a ton of space in the garden-- even the smaller bush types will take up about five feet in all directions.

Many people use these colorful squash to decorate for the fall holidays, but few realize the potential for eating them as well. Not all winter squash are created equal-- if you tried to cook your Jack o’ Lantern into a pie for example, you would have a pale, stringy, tasteless mess. There are differences in taste and texture among hundreds of cultivars of winter squash.

Most are more suited to one cooking style or another, and a few are not very good to eat at all, and are better used as decoration. Taste testing some of your fall decorations this year may give you some ideas for what to plant in the vegetable garden this spring!

Cooking a winter squash doesn’t need to be difficult. The biggest issue to overcome is the hard rind. Although this hard rind is what makes winter squash able to last in storage all winter long, cutting through it can be tough.

A sharp strong butcher knife is the best tool for cutting into a winter squash. Where I often get stuck in this process is I get the knife into the squash, but can’t budge it. To be safe, use a rubber mallet to hit the back of the blade near the handle to force the squash to split in half. Leaning on a big sharp knife blade with your bare hand with a squash wobbling on the table beneath it is asking for trouble!

After cutting the squash in half, remove the seeds. I have seen recipes that skip this step, and I don’t know why. Trying to remove the seeds after the squash is cooked was a great big mess the one time I did as the recipe instructed. Squash seeds can be roasted in the oven, tossed with a little olive oil or butter and salt just like pumpkin seeds.

For the best flavor, roasting winter squash in the oven is the way to go. This allows the natural sugars in the squash to caramelize. Cut the squash into halves or pieces, remove the seeds, and roast in a 350-375 degree oven until they are fork-tender-- usually 30 minutes or more.

The easiest way I know to cook squash is in the microwave. Place halves cut side down in a dish containing about two tablespoons of water, cover partially with plastic wrap, and microwave until the squash is tender. You can then scoop the cooked squash out of each half for use in your favorite recipe. Most people don’t find it difficult once they’ve actually done it!

Typical winter squash recipes revolve around a cooked and sometimes also mashed product-- think pies, soups, or just mashed cooked squash. A recipe that caught my eye recently used mashed cooked squash in a dinner roll. Curious, I used the recipe for a recent winter squash program and it received rave reviews. My husband decreed that these need to be on our Thanksgiving menu no matter what:

Winter Squash Dinner Rolls

Ingredients - Makes 5 dozen rolls

2 Tbsp. plus1 tsp. active dry yeast

3/4 tsp. plus 1 Cup sugar, divided

1/2 Cup warm water (110° to 115°)

2 Cups warm milk (110° to 115°)

1/4 Cup butter, softened

2 Cups mashed cooked winter squash

2 tsp. salt

1/4 Cup toasted wheat germ

10 to 11 1/2 Cups all-purpose flour

Additional butter

Cooking Directions -

1.Preheat oven to 350°. In large bowl, dissolve yeast and 3/4 tsp. sugar in warm water; let stand for 5 minutes. Add milk, butter, squash, salt and remaining sugar; mix until smooth. Add wheat germ and 4 cups flour; beat until smooth. Stir in enough remaining flour to form a soft dough. Turn onto a floured surface; knead until smooth and elastic, about 6-8 minutes.

2.Place in a greased bowl, turning once to coat. Cover and let rise in a warm, draft-free place for 1 hour or until doubled. Punch dough down and divide into thirds; divide each portion into 20 pieces. Shape into balls.

3.Place on greased baking sheets. Cover dough and let rise until doubled, about 30 minutes. Bake at 350° for 15-17 minutes or until golden brown. Brush with butter. Cool on wire racks.