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Making the most of winter squash

Winter sunshine in a gourd



A work friend and I were discussing how we were going to cook up the gifts of acorn and butternut squash that another colleague had given us. I was rattling on about trying an Alice Waters winter squash risotto and other complicated recipes when Matt looked at me blankly. "We just mash 'em up with salt, pepper and butter and serve them alongside whatever else we're having for dinner," he said. "We like it simple. Let the veggies speak for themselves."

Good point. Alice must agree, because her Chez Panisse Vegetables includes Winter Squash Puree three ways. So serving a mound of acorn or butternut squash on its own is a good place to start, and if you bake two or three at a time, you wind up with extra for a main-dish soup.

This is easier than it sounds. Build a few meals around a couple of three-pounders during the fall weeks they're in the farmers' markets (October through December or until they sell out), and you can really get some mileage from these beauties of the gourd family by pureeing the leftover mashed squash with herbs, stock and a little cream or milk. For added protein, add one cup of cooked white beans (navy, great northern or cannelloni) to the soup before pureeing and serve with whole wheat bread. Camille Kingsolver, the co-author of Animal Vegetable Miracle, developed a great recipe for white beans and thyme baked and served in half a butternut squash (

Like eggplant, winter squash has the potential to be a weekly regular at the locavore dinner table and in the next day's lunchbox. It's nutritious, flavorful and filling. I wish I had made friends with this staple sooner, because it lives on right through the winter in a pantry or other cool room. I approached the following side dish recipe as I would mashed spuds or sweet potatoes. I made the soup with many of the vegetables I've been trying to get in my kids for years, whirling the mixture in the food processor until it was creamy and safe-looking.

Savory Winter Squash Soup

4 cups cooked winter squash, including baked garlic slivers
3 cups chicken or vegetable stock (may need more for thinning)
1/2 to 1 cup half and half or milk, to taste
1 cup cooked white beans (optional)
Olive oil, kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper and fresh or dried herbs (parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme), to taste

Combine squash, stock, herbs and white beans in a 3-quart soup pot and cook over medium heat just to the boiling point (10 to 15 minutes). Remove herb sprigs (if using fresh), puree in blender or food processor (in small batches, if necessary) and return to heat. If it's too thick, add stock in 1/2-cup increments until mixture reaches the consistency of tomato soup. When soup just reaches the boiling point, stir in half and half or milk and transfer to serving bowls. Drizzle with olive oil and garnish with herbs. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serves four generously.

On the side: Mashed Winter Squash

6 pounds winter squash (2 butternut, 3 acorn, or a small carving pumpkin)
2 to 4 cloves garlic, slivered
Kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup cream (or less, depending on desired texture)

Cut squash lengthwise from stem end and remove seeds and stringy fiber. Brush flesh with olive oil. Cut slits in cavity and stud with garlic. Place squash cut side down on a nonstick cookie sheet and bake at 375 degrees for one hour, checking for doneness in the last 15 minutes. When the squash is tender throughout, remove from oven and scoop out two cups of pulp into a bowl. While still hot, mash using an electric mixer or pulse gently in a food processor, incorporating butter and cream to desired consistency. If you like the texture of grainy polenta, you can simply mash it up with a fork. Season to taste. Serves four.

At this point, the remaining baked squash, scooped into a storage container, can be stored in the fridge for a day or two (longer in the freezer).

Stocking up

It's fair to ask "Who has time?" to make homemade soup stock. And yet it's so easy, tasty and healthful that it's a crime not to, especially if you paid a pretty penny for a local, free-range chicken. Chicken stock, like many soups, needs time to simmer but does not need attention. So throw that carcass in your crock pot along with any herbs you've got lying around, limp onions, over-browned garlic from a pan of roasted root veggies (and those, too, if nobody wants them), carrots that have seen better days. Cover the lot with water and let stew quietly (it's nice on a rainy weekend) until you've got time to strain it and put it in the freezer. My record is a three-day simmer, and even then I had to put the whole metal pot of stock, unstrained, in the freezer because I was headed out of town. No big deal. When I got home, I reheated, strained and returned it to the freezer in pint containers for use in soups, pot pies, sauces and stir-fries.—Sheryl Cornett

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