IN THE KITCHEN : Squashing a Bland Reputation

TIMES DEPUTY FOOD EDITOR

When you get right down to it, winter squash is a tough sell. There's the name, to start with. "Squash" calls up images of bland baby food. Attaching "winter" before it only makes things worse. It's like an apology: This is what we have to use until summer comes and we can get to the good bland baby food.

Then there's the matter of appearance. Most winter squashes look more like instruments of self-defense than like something to eat. Let's face it, if you had to pick one fruit or vegetable to carry down a dark back alley, it would be a winter squash. (OK, maybe a durian, but that's another story.)

All of this is unfortunate, because winter squash is not only delicious, it's also extremely easy to cook.

First, settle on the varieties you favor. I tend to like the creamier, more richly flavored squash, rather than the fibrous, more vegetal-tasting varieties. My recommendations are butternut, kabocha and carnival. You should make up your own mind.

For most dishes, you'll want to start with squash pulp. There are two ways to get this. First, you can prick the skin of the squash all over with a sharp carving fork and then bake it at 400 degrees until it is soft.

I prefer cutting the squash in half, placing it cut-side down on a jelly roll pan or in a roasting pan and then adding a quarter-inch or so of water before baking. I find squash cooks more quickly and more evenly this way, though the flavor may be a tad less concentrated.

Once the squash is cooked through--about 30 to 40 minutes using my technique, about 50 to 60 using the whole squash, depending on its size--simply spoon the pulp away from the skin. Some squashes (notably butternut) have thinner skins than others and some squashes (acorn, et al.) have deep ribs that make getting all the pulp a little complicated.

The solution is pretty simple: Don't get too greedy. It's better to leave a little squash behind than to end up with tough bits of skin in the pulp.

Once you've pulped your squash (doesn't that sound appetizing?), you can make the dish as basic or as complicated as you like. Whip the pulp with a little butter (or a lot; it's up to you) and you've got a side dish that is perfectly wonderful just as it is. You can also flavor the puree in a number of ways--some diced apple, some snipped dried apricot or a more ornate reduction of balsamic vinegar and shallots, as in the recipe here.

You can also make the pulp as coarse or as fine as you want it. Simply whipping the butter into the pulp with a wooden spoon results in a somewhat chunky texture. If you want something finer, use the food processor. Squash won't get gluey the way mashed potatoes will because it's not as high in starch.

Although purees are the most obvious way to use squash pulp, don't stop there. Add liquid to the puree and you've got a nice cream soup--a bisque made without fat. Forget the liquid and add a binder and you've got a filling for ravioli or tortellini.

In any of these preparations, you can twist the taste any way you want. Winter squash have an earthy, sweet taste that adapts to many flavorings.

This soup, for example, may not be authentically Moroccan, but it is delicious. It was inspired by the fact that so many of the components of a basic Moroccan spice blend are also the spices we associate with American pumpkin pie--and, since a good winter squash is what pumpkins wish they tasted like, it seems a natural marriage. Although we tend to think of cinnamon, cloves and cardamom as sweet spices, when they're combined with cumin and chile, they give this soup a complex edge.

Many of these same spices are used in Italy in the almost medieval-tasting squash ravioli made in the area around Parma. But you can also go a different direction, emphasizing the earthiness of the squash by combining it with prosciutto and Parmesan and dressing it with melted butter flavored with only a little sage.

Although it's a lot to ask, if you'll look past the packaging, winter squash can be pretty grand.

BALSAMIC SQUASH PUREE

2 tablespoons minced shallots

1/4 cup butter

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

2 cups roast squash pulp

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly grated nutmeg

Cook shallots in medium saucepan with 1 tablespoon butter over medium heat until soft, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add vinegar, increase heat to high and cook until vinegar is reduced to syrup, another 3 to 5 minutes. Add squash pulp and salt and stir to combine. Reduce heat to low and cook until heated through, about 5 minutes. Cut remaining butter into small cubes, add to squash and beat in until fairly smooth. Serve immediately, dusted with freshly grated nutmeg.

Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

159 calories; 708 mg sodium; 31 mg cholesterol; 12 grams fat; 13 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.83 gram fiber.

SQUASH SOUP WITH MOROCCAN SPICES

1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick, broken in half

1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds

1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds

4 whole cloves

2 cardamom pods

1/4 teaspoon dried red chile flakes

2 tablespoons butter

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon minced ginger root

4 cups roast squash pulp

2 1/2 cups water

Salt

Yogurt

Freshly grated nutmeg, or New Mexican red chile powder

Dry-fry cinnamon, cumin, coriander, cloves, cardamom and red chile flakes in small skillet over medium heat until fragrant and beginning to darken, about 3 to 5 minutes. Stir to keep from scorching. Let cool, then grind spices to powder in coffee grinder or blender.

Combine butter, garlic and ginger in large soup pot over medium heat and cook, stirring, until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add spice mixture and stir to combine well. Add squash pulp and water and stir to combine well. Cook over medium heat until heated through, about 30 to 45 minutes. Puree in blender. Add salt to taste and stir in 1/2 cup yogurt.

Divide equally among 6 soup bowls. Garnish with additional 1-tablespoon dollop yogurt in each bowl and dusting of nutmeg. Serve immediately.

Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

98 calories; 91 mg sodium; 10 mg cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 14 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 1.20 grams fiber.

SQUASH RAVIOLI IN SAGE BUTTER

SQUASH FILLING

2 cups roast squash pulp

5 slices prosciutto, chopped

1/4 cup fresh bread crumbs

1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano Line is overdrawn cheese

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 egg

Mix squash, prosciutto, bread crumbs, Parmigiano-Reggiano, salt and pepper in bowl. Taste and adjust seasoning; there should be definite black pepper bite. Add egg and mix well.

PASTA DOUGH

2 1/4 cups flour, plus more for dusting

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon olive oil

3 eggs

Place flour, salt and olive oil in work bowl of food processor fitted with metal blade and pulse once or twice to combine. Add eggs and run until dough forms ball that rides around on top of blade. Remove from machine, wrap in plastic and set aside for 1/2 hour.

Divide dough in quarters and run 1 piece through manual pasta maker at widest setting to flatten. Dust lightly with flour, fold into thirds and run through machine again. Repeat, re-folding, until dough is satiny to touch, 4 or 5 times.

Dust dough lightly with flour and run through machine on middle setting. Dust again and run through machine on next-to-thinnest setting. Lay pasta sheet on counter, cover with damp tea towel and repeat using rest of dough.

Using 1 sheet at a time, place 2-teaspoon mounds of filling along sheet about 2 inches apart and about 1 inch from edge. Brush other half of sheet lightly with water and fold evenly over top of other half, covering mounds of filling. Press firmly around each filling mound, squeezing out as much air as possible and creating tight seal. Cut into individual ravioli with pasta cutter or knife. Repeat, using rest of pasta sheets.

Bring large pot of lightly salted water to rolling boil. Add ravioli, a few at a time, making sure they don't stick together. Cook until ravioli float to surface, about 5 minutes. Ravioli may be cooked in 2 batches to prevent crowding.

SAGE BUTTER

1/2 cup butter

2 teaspoons fresh sage, minced

Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

While ravioli are cooking, melt butter with sage in large skillet over medium heat. As soon as butter is melted, remove pan from heat.

Drain ravioli and add to skillet. Toss to coat well with butter and divide among 6 plates. Dust lightly with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and serve immediately.

Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

457 calories; 1,262 mg sodium; 192 mg cholesterol; 25 grams fat; 43 grams carbohydrates; 15 grams protein; 0.69 grams fiber.

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