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How to pick and prepare winter squashes

Have you noticed that the produce section of your grocery store has about a million different hard winter squashes in it lately? OK, maybe not a million, but I'm going to bet there is one or two in there that you haven't seen before. I want to give you a guide to these delectable squashes — how to pick them, prepare them and, best of all, eat them. Oh and guess what? You guessed it — they're very healthy and economical, too!

Let's start in alphabetical order. First up is A for acorn squash:

Acorn squash is usually dark green and sometimes has orange coloring, too, on its hard outer skin. It's shaped somewhat like an acorn without the top, hence its name. The flesh is nice and orange. The flavor is mild and slightly sweet, and the texture is a little stringy, but tasty.

Butternut is one of my favorites. The light tan skin is thinner than some of the other winter squashes, so it's easier to peel than, say, an acorn squash. It's shaped like a very large pear. The flesh is also orangeish and the flavor mild, slightly sweet, and the texture is very smooth and creamy.

Buttercup squash is one of my favorite squashes, and I'm always happy to see it when it's in the stores. Buttercups are stocky with a turban-type top. They look great with all your autumn decorations, but make sure you eat some, too! Their delicious is flavor is considered the best by some — nutty and sweet with a creamy texture.

Hubbard squashes are big guys that can be a lot of different colors — from a bluish hue all the way to light green and plenty of colors in-between. I recommend Hubbard squash in my low carb Menu-Mailer because the carb content is lower than other squashes and the fiber count and nutrition is all there, too.

Spaghetti squashes look like yellow footballs and when cooked have very stringy insides that resemble strands of spaghetti. Low in carbs, I recommend this squash.

Sweet dumplings are very pretty — they look like miniature pumpkins but are white-skinned with pretty green stripes. This is my absolute favorite squash. Their flesh is light yellow, and the flavor is more buttery and nutty. Texture is creamy and wonderful.

There are more squashes than this, but this will give you a good idea of what's available. Now the next logical question is, how do you cook them?

The littler squashes can be opened up with a knife, seeds taken out and cooked right inside their tough little skins. I do this with sweet dumplings all the time. Add a little butter, some fresh ground nutmeg, tent the dish with foil and cook till fork tender, yum!

The bigger guys need some bigger handling. Here's how you do it:

It's really not that hard to make delicious winter squash. First off, wash your big winter squash and stab it a few times. (No Norman Bates imitations. Go easy.)

Next, put your stabbed darling into a preheated (350 degree oven) for about 10-15 minutes, depending on the size. Throw it right on the rack — no pan necessary.

When the time is up, pull the squash from the oven and set it aside. Now futz with your salad or whatever else you need to do to get dinner ready. When the squash is cool enough to handle, proceed with the peeling and deseeding and cubing of your gourd. Place the prepped squash in a baking dish and bake till fork tender (same 350 degree oven from your first go-round).

You can add a little orange juice, water, broth — anything to give it a little moisture. Top with a little bit of herbs, too. If you used orange juice, try some cinnamon or nutmeg. If you added water, go with just about anything. If you used broth, a little sage or thyme works well. When the squash is tender, it's done. Use a fork to smush it into a puree if you like, add a little honey or maple syrup if you cooked it with cinnamon and nutmeg and enjoy — you've earned that delicious squash!


Leanne Ely, a k a Dinner Diva, is the author of the best-selling "Saving Dinner" and "Saving Dinner the Low Carb Way" (Ballantine). What's for dinner? Go to www.savingdinner.com and find the solution!