Saturday, October 30, 2010

How to Cook: Spaghetti Squash

I like cooking. A lot. And really (let’s be honest) the only thing I like better than cooking is just food in general. I love ingredients. It’s probably because nothing makes me feel more uncomfortable than working with things I don’t understand. I’m the girl that spent the summer before I started French 101 studying French so I wouldn’t start my beginner level class as a beginner. Twenty-some years of this type of behavior has shown no signs of dying, so now I roll with it.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there are foods I really don’t like. Ready for the most blasphemous example of them all? Tomatoes. I’m really not a big fan of them. Now, I try and try to cook things like tomatoes in a hundred different ways forcing myself to eat them because I just don’t feel right leaving a food out from my repertoire (and in this case, a very basic one) because it’s not really my thing. Over the summer when I spent weeks making tomatoes countless different ways to prove that I CAN and WILL eat them, I diagnosed this issue of an inability to truly put my foot down and refuse any food as the workings of my inner food evangelist. The personality that takes over when I hear someone say “Bell peppers are gross” or “What the hell is a pomegranate” and immediately attempts to fill the knowledge or acceptance gap.
This morning at the market, you could say my inner food evangelist took over.
It was spaghetti squash. I was standing harmlessly by one of the stands eyeing the potatoes that were laid out, innocently thinking about how wonderful the potatoes I cooked a few weeks ago with bay leaves tasted. And then I overheard the woman behind the counter say her mother used to do wonderful things with spaghetti squash, but she didn’t really know how to cook it. You can imagine what happened next. What made this morning unusual is that one conversation started almost a half dozen more. Everyone around this stand was truly curious about what you do with a spaghetti squash. I was happy to inform them, though in my own head I am thinking how sad it is that these people have been missing out on spaghetti squash all these years!! It’s different than every single other kind of winter squash, has a flavor that is both beautifully delicate and able to be brought out by so many different kinds of seasonings, and best of all makes it feel like you have a massive pile of carbs on your plate when in fact you have veggies!! …And there I go again. Needless to say, the woman thanked me for facilitating the sale of about a dozen pounds of squash that these uninformed consumers would have otherwise overlooked.
So here’s the skinny on spaghetti squash, why I think it’s wonderful, and what in the world you can do with it:
Spaghetti squash is a winter squash (like acorn, butternut, etc.) that shows up in fall and stays through early spring. The most important thing to know ahead of cooking it is that while it IS a winter squash, it doesn’t ACT the same as other winter squashes. Other winter squash you can roast, braise, stuff and bake, puree and turn into soup etc. and the results between the squash varieties will be relatively the same: a creamy-textured hearty vegetable that makes a great center or compliment to any winter meal. With spaghetti squash, there’s really only one way to prepare the actual squash. After that, you can dress it up however you would like (and I promise, straying from the cinnamon/brown sugar/cranberry variety of seasoning is both doable and eye-opening), but you need to first get the spaghetti out of the squash.
The best part about spaghetti squash (and really, most squash recipes, if you have a microwave) is that you can prepare the squash in around 10 minutes. Pierce the squash all over and place on a plate in the microwave on high for 4 minutes. Turn it over and cook it for another 5 or so, depending on how large the squash is. When it’s done, it’ll be soft to the touch on the outside (but also hella hot, so watch out). Let it cool. And I say again LET IT COOL. 5 minutes should do it, cut it in half lengthwise and let it cool for another 5 or so. Once the squash is no longer on fire, scrape out the seeds with a spoon. Take a fork and scrape the flesh out of the shell from top to bottom. It should create long, spaghetti-noodle like strands of squash. Its a little easier if you have the stem still on the squash – it makes for a lovely little handle. If not, I recommend using a hot pad and holding the squash half over a bowl and scraping into that. Once you’ve got your two shells scraped, that’s it. Seasoning time! As an aside – if you don’t have a microwave, you can bake the squash at 350 for 45 minutes or so. Line a cookie sheet with foil, slice the squash in half lengthwise, rub a little bit of oil onto the sliced sides and put them face down on the sheet to bake.
You can season it with just about any combination of spices you like. Spaghetti squash by itself has a slightly less creamy taste than other winter squashes and a more subtle flavor. It takes well to virtually and spices and seasoning because of how mild it is. I’ll put up some actual spaghetti squash recipes as the season goes on, I’m sure, but to start you off, here are a few general ideas:
  • Using just like spaghetti and topping with a pasta sauce or chopped tomatoes with basil
  • Browning a tablespoon or two of butter and tossing it with the squash
  • Use as an addition in soups such as lentil or vegetable
In terms of picking a squash, find one that is firm with an unbroken skin. Typically the ones I find at the market have some sort of dirt or buildup on the skin.  As a rule, I don’t worry about it if I can wash it off. You aren’t going to eat the skin, so as long as its intact and the squash is firm, you’re good to go. All winter squashes will keep for quite a while. Using it within a month is a good rule of thumb. But good luck keeping one around that long once you realize how easy and delicious the cooked version is.

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