Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Unpeel possibilities beneath thick skin of butternut squash

Renee Studebaker
Roast butternut squash to get it to release its peel, then you can chunk it, purée it and more.

If you've ever cooked butternut squash, what I'm about to tell you will not come as a surprise.

A butternut squash is no fun to peel.

A vegetable peeler is generally the recommended tool for the task, but it takes forever. And even though butternut squash is said to have the thinnest skin of all the thick-skinned winter squashes, my hand often starts to cramp about halfway through the job. That's when my mind wanders to other tools out in the shed that might work better. Chisel? Sledgehammer? Belt sander? Grrr.

So, as they say on late-night TV, there's got to be a better way. And, of course, there always is.

Here's how I lessen the pain of peeling a butternut squash: I bake it for a while like a potato until the skin softens enough to peel easily. I prick the skin several times with the point of a sharp knife and place the whole squash on a baking sheet in a 375-degree oven. After about 30 to 40 minutes (or less depending on the size of the squash), the skin will begin to soften. I take the squash out of the oven and allow it to cool completely. Then, using a sharp paring knife, I peel it like an apple. (If it's a really large squash, I slice it in several rounds and peel a piece at a time.) From there, the rest is easy. I just cut away the seeds and pulp, then slice or dice and proceed with my recipe. If your recipe calls for a purée, leave the squash in the oven for about an hour, or until a knife meets no resistance when inserted. Scoop the cooked flesh out of the shell with a spoon and then purée.

Side note: I'm guessing many of you have your own tried and true ways of peeling and seeding butternut squash. If you'd like to share your technique, please e-mail me or leave a comment on my blog (statesman.com/reneesroots).

Another side note: Having a thick skin does have advantages. Winter squashes, including butternut, "Hubbard" and spaghetti, are grown during the spring and summer, harvested in late fall and then stored for use through the winter months. The tough rind protects the vegetable and keeps it from rotting. If stored in a cool, dry place (45 to 60 degrees), a butternut squash will keep for about three months. (No wonder winter squash was so popular among early American settlers.). Warmer conditions will shorten storage time. Don't refrigerate squash; that cuts storage time down to about two weeks.

So, after you get past the tough skin of a butternut squash, what have you got? In my humble opinion, you've got everything a person could want from a vegetable:

• Gorgeous fall color, a silky smooth texture when cooked and a flavor that is somehow meaty, sweet and nutty all at the same time.

• Nutrition. Beta-carotene, a lot of vitamin A, high fiber and more.

• A flavor that blends well with other foods, so if you don't love its unadorned taste, jazz it up with other ingredients you do like (Parmesan cheese, caramelized onions or crumbled bacon, for example).

• A texture and flavor enhancer for breads, soups, casseroles and sauces. (Try adding butternut squash cubes to your next white bean soup.)

• A low-calorie side dish. Mashed butternut squash is a delicious alternative to mashed potatoes at half the calories. (One cup of mashed potatoes is 160 calories; one cup of mashed butternut squash is 80 calories). Add a little butter and chopped chives to your mashed squash, and you still come out ahead of potatoes with nothing added.

Here are three really easy and really tasty ways to prepare butternut squash:

• Make a simple soup by puréeing roasted butternut squash with cream (or, for lighter soup, use part milk and part chicken broth); a sautéed mix of apple, red bell pepper, onion and garlic; salt and curry powder, plus a dash of cayenne pepper. Who doesn't love butternut squash soup?

• Using a heavy, sharp chef's knife, slice squash in half longways, scoop out seeds and bake on a cookie sheet until soft and lightly browned (for about an hour, depending on size of squash). Top with a sprinkle of sea salt and a drizzle of maple syrup for a sinfully satisfying side dish. To add protein, top with pan-roasted pecan pieces.

• Stir 1/4 to 1/2 cup of puréed, roasted butternut squash into your favorite pancake batter. An easy and tasty way to sneak a vegetable into a vegetable-hater's breakfast.

rstudebaker@statesman.com; 445-3946