Don't fear the winter squash

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.

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.

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.

Which squash is which?

Here's a look at the many varieties you may see this fall:

Pumpkin: We couldn't leave this familiar winter squash off the list, although it needs no introduction. But pumpkin is a great low-cal, no-fat, vitamin-rich vegetable. One cup of cooked pumpkin has only 50 calories, but 2,650 units of vitamin A — almost a full day's recommended intake for an adult.

Butternut: Looking like a fat, beige bowling pin, this winter favorite is the chef's darling. The size is right. It's easy to peel and the neck has no seeds. New varieties have such high sugar content, they taste like candied yams.

Acorn: Also known as Danish, this ranks among the top winter squash in stores. It's relatively small and easy to cook. Acorns can be found in gold as well as traditional dark green.

Hubbard: Big, ugly and often warty, these heavyweights often are the size of bowling balls — and weigh about as much. Skin color ranges from dark green to blue-gray to orange. The fine-grained orange flesh makes excellent custard, soup, cakes, etc., as a substitute for pumpkin.

Carnival: Looks and tastes like acorn, but in a party mood. The skin is striped or speckled in gold, orange and/or green.

Delicata: It's shaped like a zucchini, but the skin is striped in green, yellow and white. The sweet flesh has almost a cornlike taste because of its starch.

Spaghetti: The oddball winter squash, this large, lemon-yellow gourd with a smooth skin is packed with fibrous pulp that — after baking, boiling or steaming — resembles spaghetti (and can taste like it, too). It can be roasted whole, then split. The insides are then shredded with a fork.

Kabocha: A favorite in Japan, this squash has a jade to dark-green rind with pale streaks. The flesh is smooth and creamy with an almost honeylike flavor.

Sweet Dumpling: These look like mini-acorn or Carnival squashes with vertical ridges, but the mostly white background is flecked with green. The inside is pale yellow but tastes like a sweet potato.

Turban: These large green-and-orange squashes look like their name and are used mostly for decoration. The hide is tough to split, but the pale yellow flesh has a nutty flavor.

Buttercup: Looks like a squashed green turban, but smaller — usually about 2 pounds. The flavor is sweet and — as you would expect — buttery.

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.)

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. Makes 6 servings.

Recipe from Valley Fig Growers.

The Wichita Eagle—10/13/10

Risotto with Butternut Squash and Leeks

1 large butternut squash (about 2 lbs.), peeled, seeded, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

4 tablespoons olive oil

6 cups (about) chicken stock or canned low-salt chicken broth

3 large leeks (white and pale green parts only), thinly sliced (about 3 cups)

2 cups arborio rice or medium-grain rice

1/2 cup dry white wine

1/2 cup whipping cream

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place squash on large rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper; toss to coat. Roast until tender and beginning to brown, stirring occasionally, about 40 minutes.

Bring stock to simmer in heavy large saucepan. Reduce heat to very low; cover and keep stock warm.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in another heavy large saucepan over medium-low heat. Add leeks and saute until soft but not brown, about 10 minutes. Add rice; stir 1 minute. Add wine and simmer until absorbed, stirring constantly, about 2 minutes. Add 1/2 cup hot stock; simmer until absorbed, stirring frequently. Add remaining stock 1/2 cup at a time, allowing stock to be absorbed before adding more and stirring frequently, until rice is tender and mixture is creamy, about 25 minutes longer. Add roasted squash, cream, Parmesan cheese and sage; stir until heated through. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve warm. Makes 6 servings as a side dish.

Adapted from an Epicurious.com recipe.

The Wichita Eagle—10/13/10

Butternut Pineapple Spice Cake

This is a variation of carrot cake, using shredded butternut squash instead of carrots. Frosting is strictly optional.

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

Cream cheese frosting:

One pkg. (8 oz.) cream cheese, softened

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 to 2 1/2 [cups] powdered 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. Makes 12-15 servings.

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.

From "The Classic Zucchini Cookbook."

The Wichita Eagle—10/13/10

Butternut 'Lasagna' With Kale

If you use greens other than kale, or in addition to it, be sure to drain the cooking liquid before adding to the casserole.

1 butternut squash, peeled

1 bunch kale or other greens

1 large onion

3 cloves garlic

3 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and pepper

2 cups diced tomatoes

1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage leaves

1 cup grated Gruyere, mozzarella or fontina cheese, for topping

Carefully cut the squash in half lengthwise, then scoop out the seeds. Place the halves face-down and cut in 1/4-inch-thick slices.

Remove and discard the stems from [the1 bunch of kale or other greens. Chop the leaves roughly.

Dice [the1 large onion and mince [the3 cloves of garlic. Saute the onion in [the3 tablespoons olive oil until soft, then add the garlic and cook another minute. Add the kale and cook for 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Lightly grease a 13-by-9-inch baking dish or large cast iron skillet, then cover with an overlapping layer of squash slices. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Spread the cooked greens over the squash, then make another layer of squash.

Spoon [the2 cups of diced tomatoes and 1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage leaves over this layer, then make another layer of squash. Top with grated Gruyere, mozzarella or fontina cheese. Bake the casserole at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until it is brown on top and bubbling. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

The Wichita Eagle—10/13/10

While she loves the works, she says she's selling them because it's time for a change.