KITCHEN ARM WRESTLING
Mid-winter, it's easy to miss the bounty of summer farmer's markets. Gone from my local store are mounds of tomatoes, and in-season strawberries, tender squash blossoms and sweet cherries. Winter produce has its own rhythm - all the citrus keeps us healthy and this is about the only time of year I actually crave turnip soup. In the front of our local produce market are mounds of lumpy winter squash, taking the prime real estate typically devoted to tomatoes and watermelons in August.
Squash is hearty, smooth and silky and a perfect staple for mid-winter diets. I love it blended with coconut milk and cayenne for soup, wedged and roasted with lime juice, baked until soft and mashed with butter and black pepper. But my favorite way to eat it has started with a less than pleasant experience. Dicing squash is an athletic event, one that involves holding down a round objet on slick countertops and large knives wielded dangerously. There tends to be lots of cursing, sweat on my brow and results in a bad mood.
But diced squash is kind of amazing. I pan fry it and add it to pasta with goat cheese and, well, bacon. I roast it on a sheet pan with its winter buddies - brussels sprouts, cauliflower, parsnips and carrots. I use it as croutons in salads or toss it with butter and sage in a sauté pan. If only getting it into those tiny, jeweled pieces wasn't so hard.
Then my friend told me about a method her brother uses, that I frankly ignored for a long time because I refused to believe it would work. Happily it does! By par-baking the squash you can make it easier to cut up and faster to cook. Enjoy!
Diced Winter Squash
Thanks to Martin Stayer - not sure where he learned it!
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Place whole squash on a cookie sheet lined with parchment into oven. No need to trim, poke or skin. Yep, just put it right in.
Bake for 30 min or so, until squash is still firm but can be pierced with a knife. 30 min works well for a butternut, but adjust cooking time depending on type and size of squash.
Now, simply trim squash ends and go about peeling dicing it. The squash hasn't cooked long enough for the skin to slide right off, but I find a sharp veggie peeler does the trick. The par-cooking makes slicing through the squash easy, but since it's not fully cooked, your diced or sliced bits can be roasted/panfried/dropped into soups or stews as normal.