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They may look weird or scary, but don't be afraid. Winter squash -- those hard-shelled varieties showing up in stores and farmers markets -- are chock-full of vitamins, nutrients and flavor.

Why are they called "winter" when they grow in summer? Because these squash (unlike their thin-skinned cousins) can keep for weeks, even months -- without refrigeration.

Winter squash retain their sugar (and sweet taste) longer when stored at room temperature. Chilling actually degrades the squash. When they're refrigerated, their sugar can turn to starch. Recent University of California, Davis, and Oregon State University studies showed that most winter squash preferred storage at 50 to 59 degrees, with moderate humidity and good ventilation. Any colder and they went bad rapidly.

California ranks among the nation's leading producers of winter squash (including pumpkins), second only to Florida. And we're eating more squash, usually fresh -- up to 4.2 pounds per person per year. Americans average about 1 pound of canned or processed squash per year -- mostly pumpkin or baby food.

Some varieties of winter squash are so pretty that they're used more for decoration than food. But try some on your plate -- you may be surprised.

Why eat it?

With relatively few calories, winter squash is high in beta-carotene. That's why it has that great orange color.

It's also high in fiber and dense with other nutrients. In general, the darker the squash, the more vitamins. A half-cup of mashed acorn or butternut squash has 60 calories but three times the recommended daily allowance of Vitamin A. (It's also high in Vitamin C and cancer-fighting phytonutrients.)

The easiest way to cook winter squash: Roast it.

Cut the squash in half or large chunks or slices. (Peeling optional.) Remove seeds. Place squash in a baking dish. Brush with olive oil or melted butter if desired. Then roast in a preheated, 350-degree oven until soft (about 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the size of the pieces).

Or microwave it: This method works great with acorn, Carnival or Sweet Dumpling squash.

Cut squash in half; scoop out seeds. Place squash cut-side down on a microwave-safe pie plate. Cover with waxed paper or plastic wrap.

Microwave on high for 6 to 8 minutes (depending on size of squash). Turn the squash over and test for doneness with a fork. If desired, add a little butter and brown sugar to the center; cover. Microwave on high for 2 more minutes.

To cook spaghetti squash: Pierce it deeply two or three times with a long fork to prevent it from exploding, then bake at 350 degrees about 90 minutes, or until tender when pierced with a knife. Cut it in half and remove the strands of flesh with a fork. Serve the strands with tomato sauce, as you would pasta.

Eat the seeds, too.

To toast squash seeds: Rinse the seeds under water, remove the membranes and pat dry. Spread seeds in a single layer on a baking sheet and toast at 350 degrees until crisp, about 20 minutes. Cool, then crack open the shells and remove the seeds. Store in an airtight container.

> Sherry-Braised Squash with Figs

1 butternut or other winter squash (2 3/4 to 3 pounds)

1 tablespoon butter

1 cup chopped yellow onion

1 cup dried California figs, stemmed and halved or quartered

1/2 cup dry sherry or orange juice

1/2 cup prepared chicken broth

4 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary (or 1 1/2 teaspoons crumbled dry rosemary)

1/4 teaspoon salt

Chopped fresh parsley

Peel squash and cut into 3/4 - to 1-inch chunks to measure 4 cups. Heat butter in large skillet or saucepan over medium heat. Add onion. Cook, stirring frequently, until golden. Add squash, figs, sherry, broth, rosemary and salt. Bring to boil; reduce heat and simmer gently, covered, 10 minutes or until squash is tender. If liquid remains, remove figs and vegetables with slotted spoon to serving bowl; simmer uncovered until liquid is reduced to 3 to 4 tablespoons. Pour liquid over squash mixture. Serve warm, garnished with parsley.

Serves 6. Recipe from Valley Fig Growers.

Per serving using orange juice: 209 cal.; 4 g pro.; 49 g carb.; 3 g fat (2 sat., 1 monounsat., 0 polyunsat.); 6 mg chol.; 119 mg sod.; 11 g fiber; 27 g sugar; 10 percent calories from fat.

> Butternut Pineapple Spice Cake

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

1 cup canola oil

1 cup granulated sugar

3/4 cup light brown sugar, packed

4 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 cups finely grated peeled butternut squash

1 cup drained crushed pineapple

1 cup toasted chopped walnuts

For the cream cheese frosting (optional):

1 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 to 2 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 9-by-13-inch baking pan.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, salt and allspice.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the oil, granulated sugar and brown sugar. Beat until well combined. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the vanilla. Continue to beat until fluffy. Gradually add the dry ingredients, mixing just until the batter is smooth and blended. Fold in the squash, pineapple and walnuts. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake for about 35 minutes, until a cake tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.

On a wire rack, cool completely before frosting.

For frosting:

In a medium bowl, beat together the cream cheese, butter and vanilla. Add 2 cups of the sugar and beat until smooth. If the frosting is too thin, mix in the additional 1/2 cup sugar and beat until smooth.

Spread evenly over cooled cake. Makes about 2 cups.

Serves 12-15. From "The Classic Zucchini Cookbook" (Storey Publishing).

Per serving without frosting based on 15 servings: 372 cal.; 6 g pro.; 43 g carb.; 20 g fat (2 sat., 10 monounsat., 8 polyunsat.); 57 mg chol.; 335 mg sod.; 2 g fiber; 26 g sugar; 49 percent calories from fat.

> Roasted Butternut Squash Soup with Popcorn

3 pounds butternut squash, washed

6 tablespoons butter, divided

1 tablespoon molasses

1 tablespoon dark brown sugar

Kosher salt and ground white pepper, to taste

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1 knob fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

Zest and juice of 1 orange

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1/2 tablespoon garlic oil (or olive oil)

1 cup skim milk

1/2 cup heavy cream

1 cup water

2 cups popped popcorn

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Trim the ends of the squash and halve them lengthwise. Scrape out the seeds and arrange the halves in a single layer, cut sides up, in a large roasting pan. Set aside.

In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt 4 tablespoons of the butter. When the butter turns light brown, remove it from the heat and immediately divide it between the cavities of the squash halves. Drizzle the cut sides of the squash with the molasses.

In a small bowl, mix the brown sugar, 1 teaspoon of salt, 1/4 teaspoon of white pepper, the ground ginger, fresh ginger, cinnamon and cloves. Sprinkle the cut sides of the squash with the seasoning mixture.

Add enough water to the roasting pan to come about 1 inch up the sides of the squash. Cover the pan with foil and seal the edges tightly. Bake for 2 hours. To check for doneness, pierce one of the halves with the tip of a small knife; it should slide in and out easily. Uncover and set aside to cool.

Using a large spoon, scoop the squash flesh (and any liquid in the cavities) into a large saucepan. Over low heat, stir in the orange zest and juice, Worcestershire and garlic oil. Taste for seasoning, adding salt or molasses if needed. Stir in the milk, cream and 1 cup water.

In a small saucepan, melt the remaining butter and heat until lightly browned. Stir the browned butter into the soup.

Working in batches, puree the soup in a blender or food processor, adding up to 1 cup water if a thinner soup is desired. Adjust seasonings. Serve topped with popcorn.

Serves 4-5. (From Alexandra Guarnaschelli, Food Network.)

Per serving: 546 cal.; 8 g pro.; 65 g carb.; 32 g fat (18 sat., 9 monounsat.); 88 mg chol.; 268 mg sod.; 8 g fiber; 50 percent calories from fat.