With the crisp fall leaves beginning to wither under the the winter’s first snow and Thanksgiving already a distant memory, we usher in a new season: squash season. That’s right, the time has come for us to revel in winter’s gift to the produce section. 

What’s so special about this particularly protuberant variety of seasonal produce? Though winter squash are actually harvested in the fall, they last through the cold winter months, thus warranting their name. The winter squash family packs an abundance of nutrients, including magnesium and potassium as well as vitamins A, C and B6, and they’re delicious.

Aside from their nutritional benefits, winter squash are incredibly versatile and easy to incorporate into a variety of dishes. Their sweet, mild flavor makes them a hearty addition to salads, grains, soups and so forth — or you can prepare them as a satisfying, healthy meal on their own.

Though the tough skin, daunting size and firm texture of this squash variety may appear intimidating to some, they’re incredibly simple to prepare. First, when buying squash, look for those without bruises or marks with the stems still intact and that have quite a bit of weight to them to ensure the best quality. Popular varieties (and some of my favorite) include butternut, acorn and spaghetti. These varieties can be commonly found at your local grocery store or farmers market and are fairly inexpensive. I’ve often bought mine for under a dollar.  

The fastest way to prepare them for cooking is to slice them in half and scoop the seeds out. For easier handling, cut off the tops and bottoms so that they stand up flat. Then lay them flesh-side down on a baking sheet greased with olive oil or in a pan filled about an inch deep with water and roast at 375º- 400º for approximately 40 minutes (the cooking time may depend on their size, and larger ones can take longer to cook). Once baked, they can be eaten straight out of the skin, or sliced or scooped out to add to a dish. For spaghetti squash, use a fork to pull the flesh out.

When roasted, the natural sugars that give winter squash their slight sweetness help caramelize the squash, giving them a delicious texture and deep flavor. To get the most of this flavor, you can simply season cubes or slices of squash with salt and olive oil or take a more daring route, coating them in curry paste or sprinkling them with brown sugar.

But don’t take my word for it. Try these recipes on your own for a variety of delicious, easy weeknight meals.

Easy butternut squash soup

In the cold winter months, there’s nothing more comforting or soul-warming than a bowl of soup. And a thick, velvety butternut squash soup is exactly the ticket. Not only is it unbelievably simple to make, but it’s a smooth base for an array of flavors if you feel like customizing yours with spices such as curry or ginger.

To make the soup:

Roast the squash as instructed before, scoop out the flesh and blend with chicken or vegetable stock to the desired consistency. Return the mixture to a pot and bring to a simmer. Add salt and pepper and a bit of heavy cream to taste. Top with a drizzle of cream or roasted pumpkin seeds for added texture. Easy, right?

Baked lasagna spaghetti squash boats

Spaghetti squash serves as a wonderful base for sauces, or can be delicious all on its own cooked in a pan with olive oil, garlic and parmesan. For an incredibly filling meal, make these spaghetti squash boats, packed with savory italian sausage, creamy tomato sauce and tons of gooey melted cheese.

To make the lasagna boats:

Begin by roasting the squash as instructed above. While the squash is baking, heat up a spoonful of olive oil in a pan and sautée some crushed garlic. Add the Italian sausage (either ground or 2-3 links removed from the casings and broken apart with a spatula or spoon in the pan) and cook until lightly brown. Add a handful or two of chopped kale and sautée until wilted. Next (you can skip this step and opt for just plain meat and greens with your squash) add a can of tomato sauce, a pinch of oregano and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer of several minutes before removing from the heat and adding a splash of heavy cream.

When the spaghetti squash is done, remove from the oven and let cool for ten minutes. Scrape out the flesh and mix into sauce. Add half a cup of shredded mozzarella and some parmesan and combine well. Spoon the mixture back into the halved exteriors of the squash, top with more mozzarella and bake until the cheese is melted and slightly browned on top.

Not only are these insanely delicious, but they take comfort food to a whole new level on a cold winter evening. 

Roasted acorn squash

Acorn squash has recently become my favorite of the category. Their smaller size makes them easier to handle and they pair well with almost any variety of dishes. My preferred method of cooking them is to slice them in half, scoop the seeds out and cut them into about half an inch thick slices, then coat them in olive oil and salt and roast them for about a half an hour.

They come out of the oven tender with crisp, caramelized edges and a subtle sweet flavor — perfect for tossing in a salad with kale, farro and dried cranberries or pomegranate seeds. Or, just eat the slices on their own. They’re that good. 

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