Winter squash doesn’t actually grow in the winter; it becomes ripe in late summer and early fall. Once ripe, the skin has thickened and the squash is ready to store for the long winter.
There are many varieties of winter squash and they each have their own niche to fill. The most common are butternut, spaghetti and acorn. There are numerous other hybrid, heirloom and specialty winter squash. Butternut works great for utilizing the actual squash because there is a very small seed cavity to flesh ratio. Spaghetti squash has a unique flesh that shreds into spaghetti-like strands. Once it’s baked, just drag a fork across it and then use as desired. Acorn squash has a large center cavity and is great for stuffing once the squash has been split, seeded and parcooked.
This dish can be served as an entrée or side — it will depend on the size of the acorn squash. A small squash could be cut in half and would work well; others may need to be cut into quarters or sixths. (No matter the size, scoop out the seeds when you cut it in half.) Acorn squash makes a great vessel to hold the stuffing, but it will not be edible if it is still raw. Make sure you season and cook the seeded squash most of the way before stuffing.
You can add just about anything to the stuffing, so don’t feel tied down to the recipe that follows. Abide by just a few key rules and you can make the recipe fit whatever flavor profile you want. Grains should be cooked and seasoned; you’re not limited to rice only. You could try quinoa, bulgur wheat, grits, millet or just about anything else you like.
Make sure that all vegetables for the stuffing are cooked and seasoned. Once you’ve combined the stuffing ingredients, make sure it binds well (adding more cheese helps). Sample for taste and season again, if necessary.
When the squash comes out of the oven with warm stuffing, you are not too far away from the finished product. Just a short time in the oven and you are ready to eat. To ease your work on the day of your dinner, cook and stuff the squash a few days ahead of time. Cool the uncovered stuffed squash in the refrigerator. Once cool, keep them wrapped until the day of your event. It will take a little longer to heat up because the squash will be cold in the center. Start the squash at 300 degrees for 10 minutes, then turn the heat up to 350 degrees and finish as in the original recipe.
Makes 4 stuffed squash
2 acorn squash (each about the size of a softball)
Olive oil or vegetable oil as needed
Salt and pepper, as needed
1 onion, small diced
1 bell pepper, small diced
1 cup sliced or diced mushrooms
1 cup cooked white rice
1 cup cooked brown rice
1 cup cooked wild rice
¾ cup toasted pecan pieces
½ to 1 cup grated Parmesan or other cheese, as desired
Thyme, oregano and sage, as needed
Cut squash in half from top to bottom. (If you cannot find a smaller squash, cut one large squash into quarters.) Scoop out the seeds. (Rinse and toast the seeds for a tasty snack.) Brush the inside of the squash with oil, then season with salt and pepper. Place the squash on a sheet tray or in an oven-safe dish. Place into a 350-degree oven for 7 to 15 minutes until squash is about ¾ of the way cooked. Remove from oven and allow to cool until comfortable to handle. You will be able to check for doneness by using a paring knife; it should pierce the inside of the squash easily. When pulling out the knife, the flesh should barely hold onto the knife before releasing.
While the squash is baking, sauté onion, pepper, and mushrooms in a small amount of oil and season lightly with salt and pepper. In a bowl, mix together sautéed vegetables and all other ingredients for stuffing; season with salt, pepper and herbs as desired; tasting as you mix.
Pack stuffing into squash cavity (preparation can be done 1 to 2 days beforehand) and place into a 350-degree oven until heated though and the outside of the stuffing is golden brown. Serve warm.
Brook Harlan is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He is a culinary arts instructor at the Columbia Area Career Center.