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Food Forum

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In & Out of the Kitchen: Fall decorations are good eating

If Hurricane Sandy hasn’t blown the pumpkins off your porch or, more likely this year, if the squirrels haven’t already nibbled holes through the tasty flesh, you might want to think about eating the decorations yourself.

The white pumpkins, the deep orange ones, the warty green-gray squashes — pretty much anything except those rock-hard gourds — make for good winter eating.

Sure you can buy pumpkin in a can, but why not just eat all those shapely vegetables on your front steps, one by one? There’s no need to let the squirrels get all the good stuff. And you can have the fun of comparing the taste of, say, a carnival (a green and white acorn squash), a Hubbard (those huge, warty, blueish-gray pod-shaped things), a delicata (long and yellow-striped) and a little sugar pumpkin.

Long Island cheese?

A couple of weeks ago my friend Liz called to ask about a “cheese pumpkin” she had picked up. “Ever heard of it? What do I do with it?” she asked, and I waxed poetic about the glories of the Long Island Cheese, a flattened disc of a pumpkin, with deep ridges, a milky complexion and a smooth, sweet and nutty flavor.

“They are delicious,” I told her. “Good for pies, soup, savory dishes or just plain eating.”

I told her my fool-proof method of cooking any winter squash or pumpkin. Pierce the hard skin with a fork or a paring knife in several places, put the squash in a large enough baking dish, add an inch or two of water and bake the whole thing in a 350 degree oven for about an hour, or until it’s tender. If your squash is small it will fit in a casserole dish; if it’s huge, use a roasting pan.

Keep it cool

She had a more important question: “Can I leave it on the porch until I want to cook it?”

Sure. That’s the easiest way to keep it refrigerated.

Once your squash is baked and cooled, it’s easy to slice it in half. Scoop out the seeds and stringy pulp around them. The rest — the firm orange flesh — is yours for cooking. Scoop it into a bowl, mash it up and it’s ready to go.

A lot of recipes will tell you to halve and clean out your squash before you cook it, or even to peel it. But if you want the tender flesh for pie, soup, custard or pumpkin bread, it’s a whole lot easier to cut the squash after it’s cooked, when the rind is softened. And you’re less likely to cut yourself. So I always recommend baking it first.

Different squashes have different consistencies. Some can be puréed simply by stirring with a fork, others need to be run through a blender or food processor. Pumpkins tend to be more watery than other squashes, so you might need to strain the flesh — set it in a colander or mesh strainer over a bowl until the water drains out. If it seems stringy, put it in the food processor.

Then it’s ready for you to measure out for your favorite recipe. You can freeze what’s left over for another time.

There are a couple of reasons not to use my fool-proof squash-baking method. If you want to roast chunks of squash, say with potatoes, carrots and onions, you’ll want to start with raw squash. Butternut, that tan-colored squash with a pear shape, is a good choice for this because the rind is thin and easier to peel than, say, a buttercup, which has a thick green rind harder to cut off.

I cut the squash into big cubes, cut the potatoes into slightly smaller cubes, then add chunks of carrot and halved onions. Toss the lot of them in olive oil, salt and pepper and whatever herbs you love best (thyme is good). Spread on a baking sheet and roast for about 40 minutes at 375, or until the potatoes are browned on the outside and tender inside.

Using as custard bowl

The other time not to bake the squashes first is if you are using the rind as the serving dish — as with acorn squash halves drizzled with brown sugar and cinnamon, or pumpkin custard served in a pumpkin.

That last is a nice treat to make with a sugar pumpkin, those small, deep orange pumpkins with thick orange flesh. Slice the top off the pumpkin and scoop out the seeds and pulp. (You can roast the seeds later.) Then scrape out the flesh, leaving about a half inch inside the rind.

Steam the flesh you’ve scooped until it’s soft, then mash it with butter, brown sugar and pumpkin pie spices (cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg). When it’s cooled, beat in about 4 eggs and a cup of milk, then pour it back into the pumpkin shell.

Set the pumpkin in a casserole or a baking dish, put the lid back on and bake the whole thing at 325 degrees for about an hour. You might have to cover it with foil so it doesn’t burn on the top before the custard is set. You can check if the custard is set by giving the pumpkin a little shake — the custard will jiggle but not look liquid-y.

You can also stuff your pumpkin shell with a pumpkin bread pudding, filled with nuts and cranberries. Or try a savory pudding, which you can make like the custard, skipping the sugar and adding herbs and cheese.

When serving, pull some of the cooked pumpkin from inside the rind to serve with the pudding.
It’s delicious, and makes a beautiful and impressive presentation. And you can always feed the rind to the squirrels if you feel bad about stealing their favorite porch food.

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