- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Yes, I know, at this time of year everybody’s mind is on pumpkin. Not that there’s anything wrong with them, but those huge pumpkins sold just before Halloween are much better for decoration than for cooking.

Even our favorite pumpkin pie is better made from canned pumpkin than from the giants seen in stores now.

To me, it is the beautiful displays of sweet squashes at farmers markets that really announce the delightful tastes of autumn. Some squashes are available all year long, but the best variety can be found at this time of year.

My vote is for the smaller, tastier varieties called winter squash. There are plenty to choose from and myriad ways of cooking them.

If you grew up eating acorn and butternut squash, it was probably baked with plenty of sugar and butter.

This old-fashioned American recipe has its merits, but there are more creative ways to prepare squash.

We can take inspiration from French, Italian and Asian cuisines, in which squash is enhanced by herbs, spices and other interesting seasonings.

Recently, I tasted a superb squash combination that originated halfway around the world.

Made of butternut squash wedges coated with creamy yogurt, then topped with a light tomato-meat sauce, it was served at Azeen’s Afghani Restaurant in Pasadena, Calif. The components were familiar, but to my palate the combination was new. The tangy toppings beautifully complemented the sweet squash.

Around the Mediterranean, squash often finds its way into soup. Israelis put pieces of delicate winter squash into chicken soup to lend a subtle sweetness to the broth.

French chefs make silky rich soup by pureeing orange squash cooked in light broth and finishing it with luscious creme fraiche. Italians fill pasta with squash and also add it to risotto.

Moroccans also like squash in soup, often with chickpeas and cilantro. For a festive, savory-sweet holiday dish, they simmer orange squash with carrots and chickpeas in a saffron-scented meat broth, then sprinkle the vegetables with raisins, sugar and cinnamon. This is served over freshly steamed couscous, and it is delicious.

Another North African variation, made with meat or served vegetarian, calls for topping couscous with squash in a sauce made spicy with garlic, chilies, cayenne and turmeric. Libyans turn sweet squash into a fiery appetizer puree flavored with cumin, lemon juice, harissa (North African chili paste) and lots of garlic.

If you’ve sampled tempura at Japanese restaurants, you’ve probably tasted kabocha squash, which resembles a small pumpkin and is available in many markets. The Japanese also use sweet squash in hearty soups. Soy- and sake-flavored oden is enhanced by squash, fish cakes, tofu and daikon radish.

Even in Thailand, squash is treated with care. Famed Thai TV chef McDang (whose real name is M.L. Sirichalerm Svasti) told me about his favorite ways to use squash, as we tasted the dishes he had taught at the California School of the Culinary Arts in Pasadena.

McDang cooks winter squash in what he calls a “jungle curry” of ground beef, curry paste, fresh peppercorns, wild ginger root and fish sauce, and finishes the dish with holy basil leaves. He adds a hint of palm sugar but emphasizes that “the dish should be quite hot.” Even with these pungent flavors, the squash’s sweetness comes through.

Winter squash comes in an array of colors, shapes and sizes. In addition to the familiar fluted acorn squash and bell-shaped butternut, a favorite of mine is the small, cylindrical, striped delicata.

Like Cathy Thomas, who celebrates it in “Melissa’s Great Book of Produce” (Wiley), I find that delicata tastes like a cross between butternut squash and sweet potatoes. Besides, it’s easy to cut. I also love the small sweet dumpling squash and the larger sweet-potatolike buttercup squash.

When I bought a huge Australian blue squash, the cashier laughed at my attempts to lift it out of the cart, but its rich-textured, sweet flesh made the effort worthwhile. I feel the same about calabaza, a big and sweet squash that’s easy to find at Latino markets. Also known as West Indian pumpkin, it’s used by Caribbean cooks in soups accented with cumin, garlic or fiery chilies.

The good news is that while there is wonderful variety, you needn’t be particularly concerned about names, since many winter squashes can be used interchangeably.

If a certain kind of squash isn’t as sweet as you’d like, you can always stir in a little honey or sugar.

Choose squash that feels heavy and has no soft spots or cracks. Store whole squash in a cool, dark place but keep cut pieces wrapped in plastic in the refrigerator.

One challenge posed by winter squash is the hard shell. If you microwave it briefly, it will be easier to cut. For real ease of preparation, you can sometimes find squash, such as Hubbard and banana, sold peeled and cut in chunks.

Aside from the peeling aspect, squash is easy to cook. To microwave it to the cooked-through stage, halve it and remove the seeds and strings. Place it, cut side down, in a microwave-safe baking dish and cover with waxed paper. Microwave on high until tender. It will take about 15 minutes to cook 2 to 21/2 pounds of squash. Check by piercing it in its thickest part with a fork. When tender, it is done.

Winter squash is a respectable source of fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C and other nutrients. So we can enjoy the flavor and versatility, at the same time knowing it is good for us.

Golden squash soup with herbs

Use raw butternut, delicata or sweet dumpling squash, or microwave a larger squash, such as kabocha or calabaza, until partly tender, then continue simmering the pieces in the soup.

2 pounds butternut or other winter squash

2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil or butter

1 onion, chopped

13/4 cups (one 15-ounce can) vegetable or chicken broth

1 fresh thyme sprig

1 bay leaf

2/3 cup milk or 1/3 to ½ cup heavy whipping cream

2 teaspoons tomato paste, optional

½ teaspoon minced fresh rosemary, plus 4 small sprigs for garnish

Salt and white pepper

Cut squash in pieces and cut off peel. Remove any seeds or stringy flesh. Cut squash in cubes and set aside.

Heat oil or butter in a saucepan. Add onion and cook over medium heat for 7 minutes, or until light golden. Add squash cubes, broth, thyme and bay leaf. Cover and bring to a boil. Simmer, stirring often, for 20 minutes or until squash is tender.

Remove thyme sprig and bay leaf. Puree vegetables in soup with a hand-held blender or puree soup in a blender and return to pan. Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring often. Add milk or 1/3 cup cream and bring to a simmer. Cook uncovered over low heat, stirring often, for 3 minutes or until thickened to taste.

If soup is too thick, stir in water by tablespoons until it has the consistency you like. For a deeper color or a tangy flavor, stir in tomato paste, blending well. Add minced rosemary. Season to taste with salt and white pepper. Serve hot, drizzled with a little more cream, if using, and garnished with rosemary sprigs.

Makes 4 servings.

Sweet and sour winter squash

If preferred, omit raisins and lemon juice, and accompany squash instead with a simple yogurt sauce made by mixing together 1 cup plain yogurt, a pinch of salt and 1 finely minced garlic clove. Serve sauce at room temperature.

2 to 2½ pounds butternut, banana, delicata, sweet dumpling or other winter squash

2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil

1 large onion, chopped

1 (14-ounce) can tomatoes, drained and chopped

Salt and freshly ground pepper

3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

2 to 4 teaspoons honey or sugar

1/4 cup raisins

2 or 3 tablespoons lemon juice

Cut off peel, remove seeds and strings, and cut squash in 1-inch pieces. Heat oil in a large, heavy saute pan, add onion and saute over medium heat about 7 minutes, or until golden. Add tomatoes and cook uncovered for 5 minutes.

Add squash, 1 cup water, salt and pepper to taste, cinnamon, allspice and honey or sugar to taste. Stir and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat, occasionally stirring gently, for 30 minutes.

Add raisins and lemon juice to taste and cook for 5 minutes, or until squash and raisins are tender. If sauce is too thin, uncover and cook for 2 or 3 minutes until it thickens. Taste and add more salt, pepper, lemon juice or honey, if desired. Serve hot.

Makes 4 servings.

Stuffed acorn squash with dried cherries and pecans

This can be made with other tart dried fruit, such as cranberries or diced apricots. Serve it as a meatless entree or along with roast turkey, chicken or duck.

3 (1½ pounds each) acorn squashes, halved lengthwise and seeded

4 tablespoons vegetable oil or melted butter, divided, plus oil for greasing pan

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1/4 cup chopped celery

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 tablespoon minced peeled ginger root

1 cup peeled, finely chopped tart green apple (about 1 medium)

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

1 cup fresh bread crumbs

½ cup dried tart cherries, divided

1/3 cup pecans, lightly toasted, coarsely chopped, divided

1 large egg, beaten

1 to 2 teaspoons brown sugar

Cut thin slice from bottom of squashes so they will stand straight without tipping. Oil a large nonstick roasting pan. Place squash, skin side up, in prepared pan.

Bake in preheated 400-degree oven for 45 minutes or until tender when thickest part is pierced with a fork.

Meanwhile, make stuffing. Heat 2 tablespoons oil or butter in a large skillet over medium heat. dd onion, celery and a pinch of salt and pepper. Saute, stirring occasionally, until onion is soft but not brown, about 5 minutes. Add ginger root and apple and saute, stirring often, 7 minutes. Stir in allspice.

Transfer to a bowl and cool slightly. Remove about 1 tablespoon squash from each baked half and add to stuffing.

Add bread crumbs, half the cherries and half the pecans and toss lightly until blended. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Add egg, tossing lightly. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees. Fill squash halves with stuffing. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon oil or butter over stuffing. Cover and bake for 30 minutes, or until heated through.

In a small skillet or microwave dish, combine remaining cherries, remaining pecans and remaining oil or butter with brown sugar to taste. Warm gently over low heat or in microwave until just heated through. Spoon a little over each squash half and serve.

Makes 3 servings as a main course or 6 as a side dish.

Note: To make bread crumbs, process 2 or 3 slices day-old or stale white or whole wheat bread in food processor until it forms fine crumbs.

Faye Levy is author of “Feast From the Mideast” (HarperCollins).

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