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Wonderful winter squash

Don't stop at admiration: These autumn beauties can taste as good as they look

Winter squashes, big, bright and odd-shaped, are piled high in markets this time of year. And fall has no better symbol than the heaps of Hubbards and baskets of butternuts surrounded by their many attractive relatives.

But unfortunately, while winter squash score high on visual appeal, they often aren't considered a taste treat. While tradition puts puree or squash pie on our Thanksgiving table, it is often met by a chorus of objections: Too sweet, too mushy, too bland.

The main reason for such complaints is that most recipes are variations on the same spiced-and-sweetened theme. The cinnamon-and-brown-sugar -seasoned squash that accompanies meat is not much different from the cinnamon-and- nutmeg-seasoned squash custard that fills a pie shell. However, without these traditional flavorings, the slightly earthy taste of most winter squash can be unappealing.

But when winter squash are treated well they are as delightful to the taste buds as they are to the eye. And because they thrive in many parts of the world besides their native America, there are many recipes and different ways to pair them with attractive -- and sometimes surprising -- flavor partners.

Winter squash are high in natural sugars, and their sweetness is often heightened by adding sweet ingredients such as dried fruit. But it's also often offset by using acidic fruits and vegetables. Grated lemon or orange peel or small amounts of lemon juice are good enhancers to soups or side dishes. Apples sharpen pureed soups and make a good stuffing ingredient for small squashes. Tomatoes add a flavor perk, and the combination of their red flesh with pieces of orange squash is dazzling. With a scattering of pink shrimp, as in the adaptation of a favorite Bengali dish described below, winter squash becomes both elegant and delicious.

Shrimp appear in other regional dishes as well. The French make a soup from pureed pumpkin or squash flavored with a stirred-in puree of shrimp or prawn. Similarly, Caribbean islanders combine squashes with fish and chili peppers.

Hot peppers work well with winter squash, and a bit of cayenne sparks a squash souffle. Curry powder is good in soups or in side dishes. Cumin, coriander, ginger and mace are all good with squash -- mace, in particular, giving an enticing warmth that is hard to resist. These and other spices need not replace the routine cinammon and nutmeg, but they are delicious ways to extend the flavor palette.

A little butter goes a long way to enrich squash. It can be mashed into a puree or seasoned with herbs to make a quick stuffing for smaller squash. Other fats also enhance the flavor. One way to make a quick meal is to bake some slices of bacon in the oven until they are crisp. Bake the squash in a little of the bacon grease, reserving the bacon and using it chopped as a stuffing or garnish. Sausage is also good with squash.

Many varieties of squash taste similar, so the choice can often depend on what is available and how many people you want to feed and as well as the texture required for the dish.

Most dramatic of the local squash are the huge blue-green Hubbards. According to the "American Heritage Cookbook" (1982), they are named after Elizabeth Hubbard, who lived in Marblehead in the mid-19th century and introduced it to the region after growing seeds from an imported squash in her garden. The beige butternuts and the dark green (sometimes yellow) ridged acorn squash also have firm-textured orange flesh. They can be used in recipes calling for mashed or pureed squash. Hubbard and butternut tend to be a bit more moist than acorn, so they are good choices for soups.

Among the smaller squash are pattypan, a pale green scalloped-edged squash, and the small beige crown squash. Both of these make good one- or two-person dishes.

Squash hybridize easily, so there are many newcomers such as the bigger banana squash, occasionally with a pink blush on its yellow skin. It doesn't taste like a banana, but it does have a banana-like smoothness and fine flavor that makes it an excellent choice for a puree or a souffle. Kabocha is a green pumpkin-shaped squash, usually weighing between five and seven pounds. Its dense, rich flesh, similar to sweet potato, makes a hearty well-flavored puree.

Spaghetti squash, shaped like a yellow football, is so named because its fibrous flesh forms spaghetti-like strings that work well with any regular spaghetti sauce. This squash has a mild flavor and only 40 calories per cup. Among the new small squash -- rarely grown in this area but available in the exotic produce sections of supermarkets -- are delicata, which looks like a cream-streaked cucumber in size and shape, and dumpling squash, which is like a miniature orange and cream pumpkin. Both have a lot of seeds; when these are removed you have an excellent cavity for a stuffing.

Delicata, dumpling and smaller-sized acorn squash make pretty presentations. One squash is enough for two people. Depending on the heartiness of the stuffing, they can be the main course or a handsome side dish. Kabocha is another good squash for stuffing. With its firm flesh, this handsome squash is a good choice for a family meal.

The best way to prepare squash for a puree is to cut it in half, scoop out the seeds and fiber in the center, and then place it cut side down on a greased baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes, depending on

size and other characteristics. It is done when a toothpick penetrates it easily. You can also steam or microwave squash, but avoid boiling it except in soups, as boiled squash gets watery.

Cutting a squash in two, or into chunks, can be a pain in the wrist. The best way seems to be to use a heavy cleaver. Bring it down hard onto the squash. Once it is wedged into the flesh, lift cleaver and squash together and bang them down on a chopping block. It's noisy, but the cleaver works its way through quite quickly.

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