Flash in the Pan 

Breakfast, lunch, dinner—and pie

Winter squash—along with turkey, eggnog and perhaps your crazy aunt Bertha—has a place at most holiday tables. But unlike the others, there is a seasonal reason for the inclusion of winter squash. And by seasonal, I don't mean holiday season. As the warm part of the year belongs to greens and tomatoes, the cold months belong to that hard-shelled, long-storing cucurbit. I've got a stash of more than 200 buttercup squashes from a crop that friends and I grew in a shared garden on borrowed land. At first this mountain of blue/green spheroids looked insurmountable, and I wondered what I would possibly do with them all. But as I started cooking, the pile began to look almost pitifully inadequate. Now I know that I'll be depending on, and enjoying, those squashes all through the long, cold winter.

In many English-speaking countries outside of the U.S., the word "pumpkin" refers to the entire diversity of winter squash. In the U.S., pumpkin is a particular type of this expansive family. If more people realized this, they would likely have at least one dish they could make from winter squash.

That dish would be pie. And the making of squash pies would be progress, because today most cooks and consumers seem to consider dealing with winter squash a chore, more like Christmas shopping than the gift that it is. I'm going to change that for good with three winter squash recipes that will give you a whole new perspective on this underappreciated staple. First, a chocolate squash pie that will make you hoard your squash like a squirrel stashing acorns. Next, a soup that's as simple as it is satisfying. And finally, a roasted squash with roots that will have you popping those crispy chunks like potato chips.

The mediocre reception that winter squash often receives has a lot to do with the most common cooking advice given to neophyte chefs. "Simply cut the squash in half, scoop out the seeds, and bake it face-down on a cookie sheet at 350 until soft," goes the protocol. Those who follow such directions are usually told to serve their squash dressed in butter and maple syrup, or some other sweetener. To me, that's like serving milk with cream, or bacon with grease.

Baking squash is a fine means to an end, like pie or soup, but left at that, a chunk of baked squash tends to remain on the plate after the action has moved to the living room couch. Here's how to make squash into dishes that will be eaten for pleasure, not duty.

Chocolate winter squash pie

Bake the squash as described above, and as the squash is baking, make a crust (or use a store-bought one). Then prepare the following chocolate sauce.

Mix half a cup of sugar and half a cup of unsweetened cocoa powder. Melt half a stick of butter over low heat, add the chocolate-and-sugar mixture and stir it all together. Add more cocoa powder if you like your chocolate dark. Stir until completely combined, then add half a cup of milk. Pour the mixture into the crust—it should be about half an inch deep—and put the crust in the freezer.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ARI LEVAUX

Let the baked squash cool, then scoop the flesh out of the shell and into a food processor. For a two- or three-pound squash, add three medium eggs, a cup of milk (or soy milk, almond milk, etc.) and a tablespoon each of dried shredded coconut and cracked tapioca. Blend and taste. It will probably taste really good, so be careful. Note how sweet the squash mixture is, even in the absence of added sugar. Of course, the sweetened chocolate beneath the squash pie filling helps.

Once the chocolate sauce has frozen solid inside the crust, remove it from the freezer and add the squash mixture. Bake for 45 minutes at 300 degrees Fahrenheit, or until an inserted knife comes out clean. Let the pie cool to room temperature so the chocolate layer doesn't smear when you cut it.

Winter squash soup

While the inherent sweetness of winter squash is apparent in pie, it doesn't get in the way of this savory soup.

The trick here is combining baked and simmered squash. Start with one in the oven, as above. Take another squash, or the other half of a big squash, and skin it with a knife. Cut it into small pieces until you have a cup's worth. Saute an onion, chopped, in olive oil until translucent, and add the cut squash. Then add two cups of water and simmer. Add two cups of the baked squash, mashed, and cook to a soft, chunky consistency. Add salt and raw pressed garlic to taste, and serve.

Winter squash as roasted root

Winter squashes can act like honorary roots and can be roasted along with fellow winter storage crops like potatoes, carrots and parsnips. Cut roots and squash into one-inch chunks, coat with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cook under the broiler, stirring frequently. In about half an hour, the roots and squash will be crispy on the outside, soft on the inside and perfectly at home alongside any other components of your winter feast.

Starchy winter squashes like buttercup, sunshine, kabocha and blue hubbard work best for all of these recipes, because the starch adds body. Avoid pumpkins, butternuts and other watery squashes. And avoid spaghetti squash, which doesn't work at all.

If any of these dishes survive the night, they reheat excellently the next day. The roasted roots can accompany breakfast eggs, and the soup makes a nice lunch. The pie, which almost certainly won't survive the night, makes a tasty treat any time of day.

And months later, when the holidays are a warm, fuzzy memory, these winter squash recipes will keep giving.

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