Knowing your squash

Q: Chef, can I substitute butternut squash for pumpkin in my pies this Thanksgiving?

A: Yes, you can substitute butternut or other varieties of winter squash for pumpkin in pies and recipes. Pumpkins and squash are more similar than they are different. Pumpkins, squash and gourds are from the same “family.” A pumpkin actually is a type of winter squash. Squash usually are divided into one of two groups; summer squash or winter squash. Summer squash and zucchini have a shorter growing season and are ready to harvest mid to late summer. Winter squash take longer to mature and are harvested later in the growing season. Winter squash have thick skin, denser flesh and woody stems.

I enjoy cooking with winter squash because it is so versatile. It can be baked, steamed, sauteed, pureed, grilled or used as an ingredient in sweet or savory recipes. I use squash as an ingredient in soups, main dishes, side dishes, breads, muffins and yes, as a replacement for pumpkin in holiday pies.

There are two main differences between squash and pumpkin; moisture content and texture. Squash is “wetter” than pumpkin and it tends to be stringier. If you are going to replace all of the pumpkin in your pie recipe with squash, I recommend cooking the squash a day or two before you plan to bake your pies. After cooking, cooling and pureeing the squash, place the puree in a mesh colander in a bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit in the refrigerator for a day or two or at the very least, let it drain overnight. This method allows the extra moisture to drain out of the squash puree making it almost identical in moisture content to pureed pumpkin. You can substitute it as is in your favorite pumpkin pie recipe.

If you are in a bit more of a hurry or if you plan to make a lot of pies, you can add some pumpkin puree to the mix. I like to use a 75 percent squash to 25 percent pumpkin ratio. The small amount of drier pumpkin puree reduces the moisture content and makes the pie filling smoother. If your pie seems a little moist at the end of the recommended baking time, let it bake a little longer. Make sure to check it frequently so you don’t over bake and end up with a dry pie.

Now let’s talk about some of the ways to cook squash, beginning with the easiest method.

Winter squash is difficult to cut and peel because it’s skin and flesh is so hard. The easiest way I’ve found is to simply halve the squash lengthwise, remove the seeds and bake cut side down in a baking dish. Bake at 375 degrees for about 45 minutes to an hour. The squash is done when you can insert a fork easily.

A halved, baked squash can be served as is with a touch of butter and spices or you can let it cool and scoop out the flesh to use in recipes. For recipes that call for pureed squash such as pies and breads, puree the squash in a food processor.

Another option is to peel and cube or slice the squash and roast single layer in a baking pan in the oven or saute in a skillet on the stove. The smaller pieces caramelize during cooking, creating a different flavor. Bake at 400 degrees for about 45 minutes or until the squash is tender. To saute, cook over medium heat in some olive oil (or oil of your choice) until the squash begins to brown and is tender crisp.

You also can grill winter squash. Peel the squash and cut into slices. Place in a grill basket, brush with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and grill over medium high heat until the flesh is tender and nicely browned.

Unless you are in a big hurry, I don’t recommend cooking squash in the microwave. It tends to dilute the flavor and the squash is watery.

Spices that go well with squash

The spices that go well with squash in sweet recipes are ginger, clove, cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice and vanilla. In savory recipes, try using rosemary, cumin, coriander, turmeric, cayenne pepper, garlic and chili powder. This is not a hard and fast rule because there is some crossover between what spices to use with sweet or savory dishes. Ginger, cinnamon and clove also go well in savory dishes.

Buying and storing squash

Acorn, butternut, kabocha and turban squash are the varieties you are most likely to find at the grocery store. Acorn and butternut probably are the most common varieties. Look for a squash that has no soft spots, mold or punctures. It should feel heavy for it’s size. A large squash that seems light probably has a large seed cavity or the flesh has started to dry out (or even decay). The skin should be slightly glossy or matte. It’s best if the stem is attached but if not make sure there is no discoloration or soft spots.

Winter squash will keep for at least several weeks if it is stored in a cool, dark place (away from apples and pears because they accelerate the decaying process). Don’t store whole squash in the refrigerator. Only cut squash should be refrigerated. Never wash squash before storing it (but, of course, always wash squash and other fruits and vegetables before you prepare them).

Butternut Cracker Squash Soup

2 large butternut squash

1 large acorn squash

1 medium onion, diced

4 stalks of celery, diced

1 quart of organic chicken or vegetable stock

1/2 tablespoon cumin

1/2 tablespoon curry

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

salt and pepper to taste

1/4 cup cream

Halve the squash and bake until tender. Let cool. Scoop out the flesh in medium sized chunks. Saute the onion and celery. Combine onion, celery, squash and chicken or vegetable stock in a stock pot. Simmer until the soup thickens. Add the cumin, cinnamon, curry, salt and pepper. Right before serving, add the cream. I don’t recommend substituting anything for the cream. It is a small amount in an otherwise very healthy soup and it really adds to the flavor. Enjoy!

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