My love of detail has often made me a person who makes things more complicated than they need to be. I first learned this about myself at age 14 during a Summer Theater Workshop. We each had to pantomime an activity and the rest of the workshop would have to guess what we were doing. I carefully went about getting myself a glass from the cupboard, opening a bottle and pouring myself a soda. No one, absolutely no one had a clue what I was doing. The instructor told me I was making too many little motions that were not precise enough for people to recognize. Once I got over my embarrassment and realized what I must have looked like to the rest of the group, it kind of struck me funny.
This same tendency to unnecessarily complicate things has often followed me into the kitchen without me being aware of it. Many years ago a dear friend of mine from high school came up to spend Thanksgiving with us. (He has lived in big cities all his life and traveled the world, so he very carefully told me over the phone, “I’ll be coming through Gate 1 at the airport.” “Okay,” I said, not having the heart to tell him there are only two gates at the Moscow Pullman Airport. Maybe expecting complication is a natural function of urban living I’ve never outgrown either.) I had also invited a returning student of mine, we’ll call her Terry, who was about our same age. I decided I wanted to make my pumpkin pie filling from scratch, so I carefully gutted the pumpkin, cut it up and cooked it–or something equally laborious. As we were enjoying our pie, the talk turned to the process of making it with a fresh pumpkin. I mentioned something about how much time it took. Terry looked at me and said, “Really? I always just stab it a bunch of times with a knife, put it on a cookie sheet and bake it whole. It cuts up really easy. And then I scoop out all the goop.”
You could have knocked me over with a feather. But at least I learned there is an easy way to cook a pumpkin.
I’ve always loved winter squash, any kind with very hard skin, ever since I was a little girl. You’d think once I had learned Terry’s technique, I would have easily transferred that over to squash. But I had to be reminded again. I was at the bank and the teller and I were talking about how much we like spaghetti squash. “It’s kind of hard to cook, though, ” I said. (Even cutting big hard skinned squash in half can be a somewhat perilous activity for me, especially when my hands are tired and things start flying out of them.) I had read some lengthy instructions about cutting it in half, gutting out the seeds, and then rubbing it with garlic, olive oil, etc. The final complication involved covering it straight out of the oven and putting in the fridge for 20 minutes in order to facilitate perfect separation from the skin. The teller looked at me like I had said something that didn’t quite make sense. Very politely, she said, “Really? I just stab it with a knife, put it on a cookie sheet, bake it in the oven, and cut it open afterwards. Easy. ” She shrugged her shoulders and smiled. Once again, I was chastened to the point of hilarity. Thank goodness I love a good laugh at myself.
My absolute favorite hard skinned squash for pie or anything else is something we call bitterroot buttercup up here. My friend Jody isn’t as big a fan as I am, so she gave me the first one from her garden. Luckily, by this time I had learned my lesson and then some. My favorite part of cooking a squash like this is standing at the stove and eating it right out of the skin. I usually only allow myself a little of that because the ” real” reason for cooking the squash is to add to soup or puree it into pie filling. So scraping the skin becomes like “licking the bowl” after mixing up a cake or cookies. But this time I decided not only would I just stab the squash and bake it, but that I would not turn it into soup or pie filling or pudding or anything else. I would just scoop it out, put it in a big dish, and add it to my simple meals all week, so I could continue to eat it the way I like it the best. Baked simply in its own skin.
So without any further complications or apologies for no recipe for pie filling or soup, here is the way I cook my winter squash (or pumpkin). I forgot to take a picture of the squash before I did this, but I think that’s just as well. Because it doesn’t matter what kind it is. You can do this with any hard skinned winter squash or pumpkin.
Simplest Baked Winter Squash
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.
Place a silpat mat or a sheet of baking parchment on a cookie sheet.
Place your winter squash on the cookie sheet.
Stab it top, bottom and sides several times with the point of a sharp knife.
When the oven comes to temperature, put it in and let it bake for a good hour, or until the skin dents in when you touch it with your finger, or it’s easy to poke it with the tines of a fork.
Let it cool for a while on top of the stove. Take the dog for a walk or something.
Come back. Cut it open. Scoop out the seeds. Scoop out the flesh with a spoon. Put some in a dish, and some in your mouth. And keep doing that all week long. Eat it plain, cold, hot, or add it to whatever else you want to eat it with, whenever you want to eat it.
And if you cut it open and it’s not quite done enough, don’t despair. You haven’t blown it. Just set the halves face down on the parchment lined cookie sheet and put them back in the oven for a little while longer. They’ll keep steaming just fine.