Alex Guarnaschelli: Be Brave and Try a New Kind of Squash Tonight

10/14/2014 at 09:00 AM ET

Carla Hall Vegetarian Eggplant Stir Fry Recipe
Getty; Courtesy Alex Guarnaschelli

Alex Guarnaschelli is an Iron Chef, Food Network celebrity chef, author of Old-School Comfort Food and the executive chef at New York City’s Butter restaurants. Read her PEOPLE.com blog every Tuesday to get her professional cooking tips, family-favorite recipes and personal stories of working in front of the camera and behind the kitchen doors. Follow her on Twitter at @guarnaschelli.

It usually happens at the end of September or the beginning of October. I roll over in bed and pull the covers over my shoulders. The window, slightly ajar, let’s in the first fall chill, and that’s how I know. It’s time. Time to run down to the local market to buy squash! What can I say? I’m a greenmarket nerd and I’m not ashamed to admit it. It’s mostly because the squash varieties I get in this part of the country are amazing and all very different.

My rookie year, I bought butternut squash like a madwoman. I love to split them, scoop out the seeds and fill the cavities with brown butter, a sprinkling of spices (a mix of cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, and dry ginger) and bake them in the oven until tender. There is nothing you can do to rush the cooking along. Just put the squash in the oven and forget about it for a while. While I wait, I wash and oven-roast the seeds until they are light brown, sprinkle them with salt and pepper and allow them to cool while the squash finishes roasting. I blend the squash in batches with a little cream, hot water, salt, pepper and molasses until it forms a light soup. To garnish, I top it with some of the roasted seeds or with freshly popped popcorn and people love it. Butternut is also terrific peeled and roasted to go with some grilled fish or roasted meat. Acorn squash can also be great in the same way.

The following fall, I showed up at my usual greenmarket stall only to discover there was no butternut available that day. I heard Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (in overdrive) playing in my head. What to do? I eyed the mysteriously long orange squash sitting in the crate where the butternut should have been. “That’s banana squash,” offered the farmer hopefully. It weighed 37 pounds! One squash!

I grudgingly lugged the Leviathan back to my kitchen, split it and gave it the brown butter and spice treatment. Delicious! Fleshy and slightly floral taste. The resulting soup also had an amazing color.

Newly emboldened, I bought some of the small very dark green “kuri” squash. Completely different. The flesh was very firm and tasted like roasted chestnuts. I made a filling for ravioli and combined one part banana squash and one part kuri varieties. The result was a rich, nutty and slightly floral pasta filling. I was off and running like a fashionista at a sale at Gucci!

I made a raw spaghetti squash salad. I made hubbard squash pies. I tried my hand at mixed roasted sweet potato and hokkaido squash samosas. And so, after a few years of research, I have concluded that the world of squash, and choosing the right one for each occasion or recipe, is a lot like choosing apples. Some apples are good for baking; some fall apart, some are wonderfully lemony and acidic when sliced raw and some are better roasted for hours or turned into applesauce. You’ve just got to buy what appeals to you and take a chance. While I respect that food (and produce especially) gets expensive, I have felt so rewarded by taking a chance on the funkier-looking squash out there.

People often ask me “how long does it take to cook a squash?” and my answer is always the same “when it’s ready.” How infuriating, I know! The thing is, hokkaido squash and kuri squash are small, round and unassuming. But despite their looks, they can take FOREVER to cook through! Butternut, a more user-friendly squash, yields tender flesh in a shorter time period, usually 2 hours or so. Acorn and delicata squash are also fairly quick to surrender. Roasted squash can also be watery. A great trick? Scoop the cooked squash out of the skin and pile it in a baking sheet or casserole. Place the pan in a 350-degree Fahrenheit oven for about 20 minutes to “dry” the squash out. This step extracts water and gives it a more intense flavor.

While I don’t rule out serving squash with the skin, I often find that skin and any juices on the baking sheet are unpleasantly bitter. Taste before serving. Another thing I love: What a great salad dressing raw squash juice can make. Simply skin, seed and juice a kuri, hokkeido or butternut (some of my favorites for this), and mix with olive oil, a dash of honey, salt and pepper.

Next time, I’ll tell you the story about when it took me 7 hours to cook a three-pound squash or how I solved the mystery of the “exploding” squash soup.

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