As we move into autumn, our access to locally grown produce is beginning to diminish. It won't be long before the vegetable portion of our diet will have to be canned, frozen or picked early and imported from another climate.
One option for postponing the inevitable is to take advantage of the local winter squash crop, which was picked in late summer. The winter squash category includes such long-keeping varieties as acorn, butternut, buttercup, Hubbard and spaghetti.
I have a certain reverence for winter squashes because they can be challenging to grow in this climate. They require a long growing season, ranging from about 85 days for acorn squash to upward of 100 days for the larger varieties. That's a long time to keep the plants watered and insects at bay. Squash bugs and vine borers rapidly can be fatal, so stewarding plants through an entire growing season requires a great deal of vigilance.
At the end of the journey, however, you have fresh vegetables that can be stored to take you well into the fall and early winter.
To love squash is to appreciate subtlety of flavor, and that may be one reason why squash isn't as popular as it might be. Squash works well in combination with other flavors and is versatile in the kitchen. You can saute it, bake it and even make desserts with it. But the American palate prefers well-defined flavors.
One thing squash doesn't do well is to freeze or can, and that leads me to my second theory of why people don't love winter squash. Back in our grandparents' day, when people ate a lot more locally grown produce, squash was part of the food culture. Now that we have de-emphasized fresh produce, processed food sets the standard. This means most Americans now develop a taste for vegetables after experiencing them in their canned or frozen state.
Winter squash misses out on this important step in our food culture, leaving a few feeble voices like mine to preach the squash gospel.
The following spaghetti squash recipe is from "The Complete Cooking Light Cookbook," which has a really good section devoted strictly to recipes using fresh vegetables. This recipe calls for a zucchini as well.
Spaghetti Squash-and-Vegetable Gratin
1 spaghetti squash (about 2 pounds)
1 teaspoon olive oil
3 cups sliced mushrooms
3 cups diced zucchini
2 garlic cloves, minced
3/4 cup or 3 ounces pre-shredded mozzarella cheese
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 14.5-ounce can no-salt-added stewed tomatoes, undrained and chopped
1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs
Pierce squash 6 or 8 times with a fork. Place squash on a layer of paper towels in microwave oven. Microwave uncovered at high setting from 15 to 18 minutes, or until squash is soft to the touch, turning squash over every 5 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes. Cut squash in half lengthwise and remove seeds. Scrape inside of squash with a fork to remove spaghetti-like strands.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Heat in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and saute 4 minutes. Add zucchini and garlic and saute 6 minutes, or until tender. Add 1/4 cup cheese, parsley, salt, pepper and chopped tomato.
Combine 1/4 cup cheese and squash. Arrange squash mixture in a large gratin dish or shallow 1 1/2-quart baking dish coating with cooking spray. Spoon tomato mixture over squash. Combine 1/4 cup cheese and breadcrumbs; sprinkle over tomato mixture. Bake at 450 degrees for 15 minutes, or until bubbly.
Makes 6 servings.