Getting the hard skins off is a bit challenging to some. Smooth-skinned squash are easier to peel than ones with ridges; sometimes I peel them with a vegetable peeler. However, the easiest method is to halve or quarter the squashes lengthwise and remove their stringy seed cavity. I find that a grapefruit spoon with serrated teeth is the ideal tool for this job. Discard the strings and save seeds for planting or toasting if desired.
Squash can be steamed, sautéed or oven-roasted, the latter allowing for the best flavor. If you are steaming or sautéing, just toss a few fresh, or dried, bay leaves into the pan. When roasting, I use a large, sharp chef’s knife to cut (carefully) a two-to-three-inch slit in each quarter of squash and then insert a bay leaf into the slit. To roast, place the squash halves or quarters cut-side down in a baking dish with about an inch of water. If you want the squash to cook quickly then cut it into eighths or sixteenths and just place some bay leaves in the dish under the squash. Place the dish into a preheated 400º F oven. Smaller pieces take about 30 minutes to bake and large halves can take up to 1 hour to bake. If you are roasting first and then adding chunks to a soup or stew, you may want to undercook them slightly since they will be cooked further. Pierce them with a fork to test for softness; I turn them over about halfway through baking which is not absolutely necessary but it lets the top of the squash dry out a bit and brown slightly.
Remove the roasted squash and let it cool until it is not too hot to handle. I find it is easiest to remove the skins while they are still pretty warm. Use a knife and peel the skin off or lay the squash on a cutting board, skin side down, and use a spoon to scrape the meat from the skin. At this point, depending on your recipe, you can chop the roasted squash or pumpkin into pieces; take the flesh and mash it with a potato masher or potato ricer for a textured puree; or puree it in the food processor for a fine puree. Pack the prepared squash or pumpkin into one or two-cup freezer containers and freeze for up to six months or refrigerate for a week. You will have pots of golden puree ready to use in biscuits, muffins, scones, cakes, cookies, soups, stews, chili, and pasta fillings or as a vegetable side dish throughout the winter months.
When roasting the squash, in the last 15 minutes or so of baking, turn the squash over, cut-side up and drizzle a little extra-virgin olive oil over each quarter and season with salt and pepper. Serve hot as a vegetable side.
When roasting the squash, in the last 15 minutes or so of baking, turn the squash over, cut-side up and drizzle a little maple syrup (or brown sugar) and coarse-chopped pecans (pumpkin seeds or walnuts) in the cavity; a pat of unsweetened butter is optional. These can be served warm out of the oven or at room temperature as part of a meal or as dessert.
© Susan Belsinger