Food & Drink

Conquering winter squash in the kitchen

How to cut a butternut squash, plus tips on using the fall favorite

Chef Jimmy Pardini of The Annex Kitchen talks about how to cut and use butternut squash.
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Chef Jimmy Pardini of The Annex Kitchen talks about how to cut and use butternut squash.

To many people, winter squash is as pleasing as it is perplexing. When cooked properly, squash can have a rich, sweet and creamy texture that is both comforting and filling. But some home cooks tend to shy away from it because they don’t know how to use it, let alone get it open.

Chefs and food experts say winter squash could easily become one of your seasonal favorites with a few tips, and some simple and delicious recipes.

This time of year, there is a bounty of winter squash coming out of the San Joaquin Valley fields. Among the most common are butternut, spaghetti, acorn, delicata and kobacha. There are even monster squash like the green-striped cushaw, grown by Eddie Garcia of Angel Farms in Laton. The squash is more than a foot long.

For newbies, these hefty fruits differ from summer squash in that they are harvested when the seeds inside are fully mature and the rind hardens. Butternut squash rind is notoriously hard while delicata skin is softer and can be eaten.

Flavor profiles also vary. The squat-shaped kobacha has a nutty, earthy flavor and the bell-shaped butternut has a sweet and creamy taste. The yellow and oblong-shaped spaghetti squash has a mild flavor whose flesh, when scraped out with a fork, can look like stringy pasta noodles.

When buying winter squash, follow these tips from America’s Test Kitchen’s “The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook”: It should feel hard; avoid anything with soft spots. It should also feel heavy for its size. Butternut squash is sometimes sold peeled and halved, but whole squash you peel yourself has the best flavor and texture.

Jimmy Pardini, chef at The Annex Kitchen in Fresno, says he likes using winter squash because of its subtle yet sweet flavor. He’s also a big believer in using seasonal fruits and vegetables, and couldn’t wait to use butternut squash as a filling in his handmade agnolotti pasta.

Pardini adds just a few simple ingredients to the squash: ground-up amaretti cookie, Parmesan and cayenne. After being filled, the pasta is boiled for about three minutes and finished in a pan of butter and a few sage leaves.

The result is a dish that is a perfect balance of sweetness, slight spiciness and a buttery, melt-in-your-mouth goodness.

“I really want the ingredients to shine, and when you bite into that pasta, I want you to taste that flavor of the squash,” Pardini says.

Food blogger and soon-to-be registered dietitian Tawnie Kroll says squash can be incorporated in a variety of dishes, including on pizza, in soups, as a lasagna filling or in a gratin.

She has a few quick and healthy squash recipes on her blog,, including a hearty chili and a salad with Brussels sprouts, chunks of butternut squash and a citrus vinaigrette.

“I like that it has a dense flesh and such a robust flavor and that you can make it into a sweet or savory dish,” Kroll says.

Chef Jonathon Perkins, at Erna’s Elderberry House Restaurant, knows that the rock-hard skin of the butternut has tested the patience of more than one cook. And while some methods suggest using a cleaver and a mallet to crack it open, there are other options.

One quick way is to soften the skin in the microwave. Start off by poking holes in the squash with a fork, cut off the ends and microwave for three and a half minutes, or longer if you like. Let it cool and peel the skin off and continue cooking using whatever method you like.

Others prefer a slower approach. Perkins says you can cook butternut squash in the oven at 400 degrees for one and a half hours. Let it cool, peel, scoop out the seeds and eat as you like.

Although he’s tried other winter squash varieties, Perkins likes the flavor, texture and color of butternut.

“Not only is it deliciously sweet and offers a cook a versatile ingredient for either sweet or savory cooking, but the vibrant orange color exudes autumn in every dish it enhances,” Perkins says.

Robert Rodriguez: 559-441-6327, @FresnoBeeBob

Butternut squash chili

Recipe from Tawnie Kroll,

One 15-ounce can kidney beans, drained and rinsed

One 15-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed

One 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes

1 green bell pepper, cored and diced

1/2 white onion, diced

1/2 red onion, diced

4 potatoes, cubed

One 8-ounce container mushrooms, finely chopped

1 butternut squash, peeled, seeds removed, cubed

1 pound lean ground turkey, cooked

1 tablespoon cumin

1 tablespoon paprika

1 teaspoon Sriracha

1 teaspoon oregano

Salt and pepper to taste

1 1/2 cup carrots, diced

Juice from 1 lime

4 fresh tomatoes, diced

4 cups water

4 cups vegetable stock

Place all ingredients into slow cooker Cook on high for 4-6 hours, or on low for 6-8.

Serves 12

Brussels sprouts and butternut squash with citrus vinaigrette

Recipe by Tawnie Kroll,

1 butternut squash

About 15 Brussels sprouts

Salt and pepper

1/2 cup walnuts, chopped

Thyme, fresh

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

For the dressing:

1/4 cup honey

1 orange, zest and juice

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Peel the butternut squash and cut in half. Scoop out the seeds and then cut in small cubes. In a large frying pan over medium heat, heat 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and place the butternut squash cubes inside the pan. Season with salt and pepper. Cook the squash until tender, about 20-30 minutes. Be sure to stir frequently.

While the squash is cooking, prepare the Brussels sprouts. Wash them, cut off the stems and peel loose leaves off. Cut them in half, and larger sprouts you can cut in fourths. When the squash is done, remove from pan and set aside in a bowl. Pour remaining extra virgin olive oil in pan and cook the Brussels sprouts. Flip them so they get a nice roasted look. These take less time, about 10-15 minutes.

While the Brussels sprouts are cooking, prepare the citrus dressing. Mix all of the ingredients in a small bowl and whisk together. Combine the Brussels sprouts and squash together and toss in walnuts and dressing. Garnish with thyme; serve.

Serves 5

Squash stuffed with wild rice and golden raisins

From the book “Eat Clean Stay Lean” by Wendy Bazilian and Editors of Prevention magazine.

1/2 cup wild rice

2 small dumpling or acorn squash

4 ounces mushrooms, finely diced

2 tablespoons golden raisins

1/2 cup shredded Gruyére cheese

3 tablespoons walnuts, roughly chopped

1 egg

Cook the wild rice in 1  1/2 cups lightly salted water in a small pot until the rice is tender, 45 to 50 minutes. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut each squash in half, lengthwise, and scoop the seeds out with a spoon. Place the squash halves on a baking sheet, cut side up, and bake until just tender but still firm, about 30 minutes. Fold the warm rice into mushrooms, raisins, cheese, and walnuts in a small bowl. Stir in the egg to coat all ingredients. Divide the stuffing between the par-cooked squash halves. Return the stuffed squash to the oven and bake until the filling is heated through and the squash is fork-tender, about 15 minutes.

Serves 2

Spaghetti squash and pork stir fry

“Eating Well in Season,” by Jessie Price and the Editors of Eating Well.

One 3-pound spaghetti squash

1 pound pork tenderloin, trimmed

2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil

5 medium scallions, thinly sliced

2 clove garlic, minced

1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons reduced sodium soy sauce

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

1 teaspoon Asian red chili sauce, such as Sriracha or chili oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut squash in half. Scoop out and discard seeds. Place each half, cut side down, on a baking sheet. Bake until the squash is tender, about 1 hour. Let cool for 10 minutes then shred the flesh with a fork into a bowl. Discard the shell. Slice pork into thin rounds; cut each round into matchsticks.

Heat a large wok over medium-high heat. Swirl in oil, then add scallions, garlic, ginger and salt. Cook until until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the pork; cook, stirring constantly, until just cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the squash threads and cook, stirring for 1 minute. Add soy sauce, rice vinegar and chili sauce (or chili oil) cooking, stirring constantly, until aromatic, about 30 seconds.

Serves 4