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Eat the Centerpiece

November 18, 1998|RUSS PARSONS

Winter squash make a colorful holiday centerpiece, but all too often that's all they're used for. It's not hard to figure out why. With their thick shells, huge size and confusion of varieties, winter squash make an imposing ingredient.

They're really not all that bad, though. The preparation doesn't vary that much from one type to another. And once you've settled on a few that fit your tastes, the shopping becomes much simpler.

No matter what kind of winter squash you're using, there are basically two ways to prepare it.

You can peel the squash, then cut it into cubes and steam it until it's tender for an extremely creamy, mild-flavored dish.

Or you can cut the squash in half (in quarters, if it's really big), and roast it at 400 degrees in a baking pan to which you've added about half an inch of water. The flavor will be more intense, thanks to the dry heat of roasting, but the squash may be stringier. Putting the puree through a sieve will take care of it, but it's another step.

Squash can be pureed in a food processor, because it is lower in starch than potatoes and won't go gummy. Process it while it's hot, and add a couple of knobs of butter and a little salt and pepper and you really don't need to do more.

Choosing which squash to cook is almost as easy. Squash differ in two ways: flavor and texture. Flavor runs from nutty sweet to interestingly bitter and vegetal. Texture can be creamy or stringy.

Butternut, kabocha and Carnival are the sweetest and creamiest. Though it is sometimes difficult to find, Carnival has the most complex flavor. If you like squash that tastes more, well, "squashy," try Delicata. Acorn is fairly smooth with a taste halfway between nutty and squashy, and would make a good compromise squash.


Sweet potatoes come in a wide variety, but mostly they can be divided between dark, moist types (often mistakenly called yams) and pale, floury types. The dark types are best for candying, the paler types are better for baking.

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