Stuffed squash

Right now in our household, our furnace is busted. Tim has been thoroughly exploring our options for the past few weeks, between pricing repairs and getting quotes on different models of furnaces from something like ten local companies. You want a decision researched with detail and care? Tim is your dude. I think he’s been narrowing it down and we’ll have an action plan by the end of the week, but in the meantime: no heat.

Luckily it’s been a fairly warm late September and early October, but in the evenings when it’s gotten a bit nippier, I have to admit that I sometimes chose dinner based on whether the oven would be needed, because it turns our kitchen into a lovely warm wonderland. Last week I made the sweet potato soup that calls for roasting the potatoes and a parsnip. The kitchen was toasty AND smelled like cooking starches, and we got a bonus of warm tummies full of soup at the end. On Monday, I fired up the oven once again to make some stuffed squash.

One of my very best friends first informed me about the magic of stuffed squash a few years ago, and I’ve made it tons since. It’s the best kind of fall dinner, because you saute and simmer a bunch of delicious ingredients and then bake it for good measure. It’s flexible and forgiving, and the feeling of scraping every last bit of squash out of the rind is weirdly satisfying. I’ll give you my basic approach to the dish, but please know that you can go with SO many different flavor combinations here. I have a few things that I want to try (sausage and apples and sage? yes please!) to mix it up, but this dish is so good, you’ll want to make it over and over, too!

Start with a small squash with a reasonable cavity.  Butternut squashes seem to have an itty bitty cavity for a whole lotta squash, and while that is perfect for some dishes, you want room to load up your halves with lots of delicious filling. We usually go with Acorn, but this time Tim picked up a Buttercup squash, which worked out great. If you want to do this as part of a larger meal with lots of guests, I bet this would be awesome in a Spaghetti squash, but we usually use littler ones and every guest gets their own half.

Anyway, select your squash and carefully cut it in half. For an Acorn, I have done a vertical cut, but with the Buttercup, I cut it horizontally, so it would sit better on the base. If your squash is super-wobbly, you might want to cut a flat part on the bottom of it to help it to sit nicely, but it’s best to leave the rind intact and trap all of the squashy deliciousness. Don’t worry if it tilts a little! Use a spoon or melon baller or grapefruit spoon or whatever moves you to clean out the cavity of each half. Take a fork and poke some holes in and around the cavity of each squash half and then set aside.

I usually put a grain in my filling, so at this point I cook some rice (or I start it before I deal with the squash, our pressure cooker is great, but it is not instantaneous). I am interested in trying quinoa or even couscous next. Cook your grain, and you can leave it a touch underdone if that appeals to you, since it’s about to sit in toasty oven for awhile. While the rice is cooking, I diced up an onion and 4 cloves of garlic (I always have to laugh at recipes that just call for one clove) and sauted them in a pan with a bit of olive oil. For this dinner, I added some dried oregano and basil and ground cumin, generous pinches of each. Fresh herbs would probably be marvelous, but I never seem to have them on hand after the end of summer. After the onions got some yummy brown bits on the edges, I added a can of diced tomatoes, after draining about half of the liquid. You don’t want too much liquid in the filling, but some of it will cook down. I defrosted some frozen corn and spinach in the microwave and added that to the filling, and then a handful of fresh spinach just for good measure (since we hadn’t used it up as fast as I’d expected and I didn’t want it to go bad before we could). Next I defrosted and added a bag of Morningstar Farms burger crumbles. If you’re a meat eater, I hope you know what approach to take on adding meat to this filling. I’m assuming cook some hamburger or sausage or chicken or whatever before you add it, but I honestly couldn’t tell you. Use your own best judgement, carnivores!

At this point, I preheated the oven to what I thought was 350, but turned out to be closer to 425, because I forgot our oven knob is off. Luckily, this is a super-forgiving recipe, so everything came out fine (and boy howdy, I cannot wait until we redo our kitchen)! While the oven was heating up, I added the rice to the filling and mixed everything together and let some of the liquid bubble away. Once the filling seemed appropriately dry, I removed it from heat and started assembling my squash halves. I cut some aluminum foil large enough to wrap up the squash halves in individual packets and set half of a squash in the center. I packed the filling into the cavity, getting as much delicious tomato-y, rice-y, burger-y goodness in as possible. Go ahead, mound it a little higher than the top of the squash. You’re totally going to want some. Then I wrapped the foil up over the top of the squash and folded the ends to make a sealed packet. Repeat with as many squash halves as you’re preparing. I prepped 2 squashes (so…4 halves, you’re welcome for the math help) on Monday, so we could have leftover stuffed squash to bring in for lunch later in the week. I still had some filling left over, and Tim and I picked at it a little while it cooled, and the rest also got packed into containers for leftovers.

The packets, set on some cookie sheets, went into the hot oven for about 40 minutes before I checked on them (not realizing that the oven was so hot). To check on them, I pulled each tray out and opened one packet of each kind of squash (since I wasn’t sure if they’d cook at the same rate) and poked a fork into the exposed squash area to see how soft it was. It went in easily in a few places (I like to check a few spots, just in case it cooked unevenly) on both varieties of squash, so I opened the tops of all of the packets and popped the halves back in the oven for another seven minutes. This last bit of cooking helps the top of the filling to crisp up in a really delightful way. If you enjoy cheese (Tim does not), this would be the time when you’d want to sprinkle a little cheese on top of your baked squash and let it get all melty and awesome during the last few minutes of cooking.

Cooking time for this dish can really vary depending on variety and even just the particular squash you’ve got. I usually start with 40 minutes before I check and follow up every 10 minutes until I can tell I’m getting close (and then leaving the packets open to get crispy), and it’s taken over an hour before with particularly thick squash. To speed up the process, you can intentionally set the oven higher, though I prefer the longer, slower method to get the squash cooked evenly, but honestly, either works. Don’t be alarmed if you hear some sizzling from inside the packets or get a bit of a burning scent. Sometimes the liquid from the filling will drip down the outside of the squash and sizzle, but it’s okay!

To serve, I just put each half in a little bowl. It’s so lovely to scrape the squash away from the rind and get some filling and squash with each bite. It’s a cozy meal, especially if it’s raining or chilly out, and I love to make it often in the fall and winter. While I’ve always made it pretty close to the above recipe, substituting a spice occasionally, I want to try it with some sauteed zucchini (summer squash inside winter squash? get out!) and mushrooms, or the sausage/apple combo I mentioned above. Maybe add some chopped walnuts. I bet something chili-esque would be amazing as the filling as well. Let me know if you try it and what fillings you came up with!

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