Peel a winter squash? No thank you. There is no more thankless kitchen task. Smart grocers know this and sell squash that is already peeled and cut. But there is a much easier and tastier solution to the problem of squash preparation: Roast it.
The most delectable squash puree is this easy to achieve: Cut your squash in half through the stem end. Remove the seeds. Place the two halves cut-side down on a baking sheet and roast at 400 degrees until the flesh is tender, anywhere from 40 to 60 minutes. Spoon out the flesh and, if you want to make it really smooth, put it through a food mill or sieve.
A fully cooked squash gives easily when prodded and a sharp knife will penetrate its skin with no resistance. If you roast it on a nonstick baking sheet, or one covered with parchment paper or a Silpat, cleanup will be that much easier.
There are about a dozen winter squash varieties out there, and all of them will yield to this treatment, from the daintiest carnival to the commonest butternut to the plumpest kabocha to the most monstrous Hubbard. A roasted 3-pound squash will yield a little less than 3 cups of puree.
You don't even have to remove the flesh from the skin. Slice the roasted squash halves, seasoned with salt and pepper and, if you like, some butter or food olive oil. A grating of Parmesan cheese certainly won't hurt.
Smaller winter squash take particularly well to being stuffed and roasted whole. Sweet dumplings and Jack be Littles weigh in at about a pound and share a boxy shape that makes them particularly stable. Cut off their "lids," scoop out the seeds, then throw in some salt and pepper and whatever else you fancy - herbs, garlic, grated cheese - along with a spoonful or two of olive oil, butter or cream, and roast for about 45 minutes. (For the slightly larger acorn, carnival, buttercup or kuri, make a little ring of aluminum foil for them to stand on, and bake for closer to an hour.)
With its thin, edible skin and cylindrical shape, delicata squash can simply be sliced into rings and roasted.
A word about pumpkins: The ones you carve for Halloween aren't really suitable for eating, but two varieties are - pie pumpkins and cheese pumpkins.
ROASTED DELICATA ROUNDS
2 delicata squash
Extra-virgin olive oil
1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Cut off both ends of each squash, then cut in half through its "waist." Use a paring knife and/or teaspoon, remove seeds while leaving cylinder intact. Slice squash into thin rings, no more than 1/4 inch thick.
2. Lightly oil a nonstick (or parchment or Silpat-covered) baking sheet. Place slices on sheet and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Flip slices over and sprinkle again. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, checking often to see if undersides of rings are nicely browned. When they are, flip and bake 5 to 10 minutes longer, until top sides are browned. Makes 4 servings.
SPICY SOUTHWESTERN STUFFED SQUASH
This recipe makes impressive use of small (1-to 2-pound) winter squash and would be a suitable first course at Thanksgiving or, with a salad, the centerpiece of a vegetarian meal.
Small acorns work, but if your market sells sweet dumpling, buttercup, turban or carnival squash, why not buy a variety? Try to get squash that are about the same size (so they'll cook in the same amount of time) and look for squash that stand up on their own (sweet dumplings are very stable).
1 small poblano pepper (about 4 inches long)
2 teaspoons kosher salt (or a generous
teaspoon of table or fine sea salt)
2 large cloves garlic, peeled
2 teaspoons cumin seed
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
4 small squash, about 11/2 pounds each
4 tablespoons finely minced cilantro
1/2 cup heavy cream
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. If you have a gas stove, hold the poblano pepper directly in a burner flame (with tongs), rotating it until its entire surface is blistered. (If you have an electric stove, you can blacken the pepper in a dry cast-iron pan.) Set pepper aside to cool, then rub off the skin with a paper towel, cut off the top, pull out the seeds, cut lengthwise into four triangular filets and then crosswise into very thin strips.
2. Combine salt, garlic, cumin and black pepper and grind to a paste with a mortar and pestle or whir in a mini-processor.
3. With a sharp, heavy knife, cut the top 1/4 off the squash. Scoop out seeds. Place squash on a baking sheet. Into each squash cavity place 1/4 of the paste and 1 tablespoon of the cilantro. Depending on how spicy you like your food, use up to 1/4 of the sliced poblano pepper in each squash. Pour 1 to 2 tablespoons cream into each squash; it should come about 1/3 of the way up the cavity. Top each squash with its own lid.
4. Bake until squash gives easily when you prod it and the filling bubbles, 45 minutes to 1hour. (Note that different squash may cook at different rates.) Makes 4 servings.
PENNE WITH SQUASH SAUCE AND SAGE-BROWN BUTTER
Tortelli di zucca, squash-filled fresh pasta, sauced with sage-infused browned butter is one of the glories of the Northern Italian table. Here, the same flavors are used in a much simpler dish featuring penne (or any other short macaroni).
Any winter squash will work here. A 3-pound squash will yield just enough flesh for the recipe, about 2 1/2 cups, but feel free to roast a larger squash and find another use for the leftovers. (Mashing it with salt, olive oil and Parmesan cheese can't be beat.) I have made this with butternut, kabocha and, most memorably, with a small Hubbard squash whose dense flesh was entirely free of fiber - more like a potato than a squash.
One last note: The pasta-cooking water here is used as the "broth" to thin the squash, so it is imperative that it be well salted. Use at least 2 tablespoons for each gallon of water.
1 (3-pound) squash
4 tablespoons butter
8 to 12 fresh sage leaves
Extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
1 large shallot (or small onion), minced
2 tablespoons salt
1 pound penne
2 cups grated Parmesan cheese
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut squash in half and remove seeds. Place halves, cut-side down, on a baking sheet and bake until flesh is tender, about 1 hour. When cool enough to handle, scoop out flesh and set aside.
2. Melt butter in a small pan. Add sage leaves and cook over medium heat. First the butter will bubble as the water in it boils away, then it will start to turn brown. At this point, turn off heat and set aside.
3. Bring a large pot of water to boil. Meanwhile, film the bottom of a large, heavy skillet or Dutch oven (at least 12 inches in diameter) with olive oil, about 4 to 5 tablespoons. Add 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper and shallot. Saute, over medium heat, until shallot is soft but has not browned, about 10 minutes. Turn off heat.
4. When the water boils, add salt and then the penne. While the penne cooks, add the squash flesh to the skillet (off the heat) and mash roughly with the back of a spoon. (If you like a smoother texture, you could put the squash flesh through a food mill.) Scoop out a cup of the pasta-cooking water and add to squash. Turn heat to medium high and stir vigorously to make a thick sauce.
5. Place sage-butter back on heat just to rewarm.
6. When penne is al dente, use a "spider" or large slotted spoon to transfer the pasta to the skillet. Turn heat to high and mix everything well, adding more pasta-cooking water if sauce is still too thick. Remove from heat and add 1 cup of Parmesan. Mix well and turn into a serving bowl. Sprinkle with more cheese, then pour the brown butter over everything, arranging the sage leaves attractively on top. Serve with more cheese. Makes 6 to 8 servings.