November 16, 2011

Winter squash: low in fat, high in fiber, versatility

They come in an array of colors and skin textures and are finding their way into soups, ravioli and salads.

By SUSAN M. SELASKY McClatchy Newspapers

Grocery store bins and farmers markets are brimming with winter squash. It's hard not to notice these versatile vegetables.

COOKING WITH SQUASH
click image to enlarge

Squash overruns the produce bins at this time of year.

McClatchy Newspapers

COOKING WITH SQUASH
click image to enlarge

The round, pumpkin-like butternut squash stars here in Enchiladas Calabaza.

McClatchy Newspapers

SQUASH BASICS

CHOOSING: Look for squash that is firm and heavy. Avoid any with decay or soft spots.

PREPARING: Maren Jackson, co-owner of Seva restaurant in Ann Arbor, Mich., says to first slice off the top or bottom so you have a flat surface to rest it on before peeling. Peel with a paring knife or vegetable peeler.

WITH A LARGE SQUASH like Hubbard, insert a knife and use a meat cleaver or rubber mallet to pound the knife into the squash. (If you do an Internet search, you will see people throwing them on concrete to split them open.)

SMALLER VARIETIES such as acorn, delicata and carnival can be pierced several times all over and then microwaved a few minutes to soften the skin. That makes it easier to cut through.

STORING, BAKING, ROASTING: Most squash will last for weeks stored in a cool, dark place. To bake, cut in half or into pieces and remove the seeds. Place cut side up on a baking sheet. Brush with olive oil, melted butter or margarine and, if you like, a sprinkling of brown sugar. Bake at 350 degrees until tender, about 45 minutes. To roast, cut squash in half lengthwise. Rub with a little olive oil and place the cut side down on a sided baking sheet. Roast at 400 degrees until tender, about 45 minutes.

ONCE IT'S COOKED, keep it just a few days in the refrigerator. You also can freeze cooked squash. Place cooked cubes or puree in sealable freezer bags or containers and freeze up to one year.

They're dressed in an array of oranges and reds, light and dark greens, even pale cream speckled with green.

They have smooth, rough or warty skins and odd names like kabocha and calabaza. Some, like turban and acorn, are named for their shapes. The long, yellow strands of spaghetti squash, appropriately enough, make a great stand-in for pasta. Bell-shaped butternut, hailed for its brilliant orange flesh, is one of the best loved.

Local chefs are tucking these beauties into enchiladas, pureeing them for soup, stuffing them in ravioli and cubing them for salads.

"We do a roasted butternut squash chili that has a sweet-hot dichotomy," says Maren Jackson, co-owner of Seva vegetarian restaurant in Ann Arbor, Mich. The chili replaces one of the weekly soups on the fall menu. Later in the season, pumpkin manicotti and spaghetti squash with hazelnut mole show up.

Jackson says squash not only tastes great but is full of good vitamins and nutritional elements like fiber and beta carotene. Plus, it's low in fat.

"My favorite is butternut squash because it has the richest flavor, especially if you oven-roast it," Jackson said. "It caramelizes the sugars a little bit and gets the good deep flavor."

Jackson developed one of Seva's best-selling entrees, the Enchiladas Calabaza, named for the round, pumpkin-like squash. The enchiladas have been a menu feature since the 1980s.

To match the sweetness of the squash, the dish employs typical ethnic seasonings.

"We use cinnamon and cumin, which adds some Mexican authenticity there," Jackson says.

At vegetarian Inn Season Cafe in Royal Oak, Mich., chef Thomas Lasher uses delicata, kabocha, Hubbard and butternut squash in many dishes.

"We will put chunks of butternut in grain salads, stuff acorn or delicata because they have the form for it and use buttercup squash in soups," Lasher says.

Many squash varieties can be intimidating with their large shapes and thick skins, but Lasher says people shouldn't be afraid.

"You just have to cut it up and roast it," he says. "It definitely brings the sweetness out and the squash becomes more full-flavored."

ENCHILADAS CALABAZA

Makes: about 14

Preparation time: 30 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Adjust spice amounts to your taste.

FILLING:

5 pounds calabaza or favorite winter squash

3 to 4 tablespoons canola oil, divided

2 cups diced onions

8 ounces reduced-fat cream cheese

1 cup sliced green onions

1½ teaspoons chili powder

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon oregano

1 teaspoon coriander

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon salt

14 corn tortillas (5½ to 6 inches in diameter)

SAUCE:

¾ cup diced onion

½ cup water

½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

½ teaspoon black pepper

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon chili powder

1 teaspoon cumin

2 cups tomato sauce

¼ cup minced cilantro

1 cup shredded cheddar/Monterey Jack cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. To make the filling: Peel and seed the squash. Cut squash flesh into 1-inch pieces and spread the pieces out on a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with 1 to 2 tablespoons oil and toss to coat.

Bake about 30 to 45 minutes, until cooked through. Remove from oven (leave oven on) and transfer squash to a large bowl. Mash up the squash a bit, then set aside.

Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil and saute the diced onions. Stir in the cream cheese until melted. Remove from the heat and stir in the mashed squash, green onions, chili powder, cinnamon, oregano, coriander, cumin and salt. Steam or microwave the tortillas to soften. Place about ¼ cup (more if using larger tortillas) of squash filling in the center of the tortilla. Roll up and place seam side down in a lightly oiled baking dish.

(Continued on page 2)

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