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story.lead_photo.caption Winter squash come in many shapes and sizes. They’re often interchangeable, but some varieties work better in certain dishes than others. - Photo by Tom McCorkle/For The Washington Post

It's decorative gourd season, but it's also edible gourd season. Swing by any farmers market these days and you'll be greeted with a rainbow of winter squash in all sorts of shapes, sizes and colors.

They're so tempting you might be hauling a few home before you even know what you're going to do with them.

■ Pick the right one. Look for winter squash that are hard, heavy and free of mold or too many blemishes. A deep-colored exterior is a good sign, too. Depending on what you're making, the varieties can be somewhat interchangeable. You're going to get a yellow to orange flesh, with varying degrees of firmness and sweetness. Kabocha, for example, are firmer and drier, so they're great for when you want a squash to hold its shape, such as in a curry. Delicata, as the name suggests, have a thin skin that is easy to eat. Butternut and acorn are both ubiquitous and versatile, the former boasting a marked sweet flavor and the latter a more mild one. Spaghetti squash is a class in its own, with a tender flesh that separates into somewhat glassy-looking threads. The massive Hubbard makes for an impressive stuffed holiday main course. That's just scraping the surface. When in doubt, ask your farmers market vendor.

■ Prep it. When you want or need to peel a winter squash, we've found that microwaving it first helps. Prick the squash in a couple of spots and then nuke it for just a few minutes. The exterior will soften enough to make getting the peel off easier without necessarily cooking the inside. Even if the inside doesn't get noticeably softer, you'll have less trouble cutting it up, too.

■ Speaking of cutting, this is where it can get a bit nerve-racking. Find the biggest, sharpest knife you have and get carving. Steady the squash on a damp dish towel, or slice a thin plank off a side or two to make it rest flat on your board (again, that will be easier to do if you've first popped it in the microwave). You may need to rotate the squash — carefully — as you work your knife through it rather than going straight down in one cut. If you have a butternut, separate the straight trunk from the rounded bulb end and then continue breaking it down into the size pieces you want.

■ No matter how you plan to cook it, you're going to want to take out the seeds. There are special tools for this, but a large soup spoon works just as well. Whatever you use, scrape out the seeds and the stringy flesh holding them in.

■ There are so many ways to cook winter squash. Roasting is an obvious choice. You can roast halves in the oven at 350 to 400 degrees until soft (probably close to an hour, especially for larger varieties), cut side up or down depending on whom you ask. Or chop it into pieces for a much faster bake. There's also the microwave route, which is the logical conclusion to the peeling strategy. You just let the squash go until it's completely soft. Steaming is another option.

Steaming is one of the easiest ways to tenderize all types of winter squash. It works in a metal-rack steamer over water on the stove top, but the microwave offers convenience and speed. (You could steam the squash in a multicooker/electric pressure cooker, too.)

Here, the steamed slices of squash are treated to a smoky-sweet coating that enhances their appearance as well as flavor. While you are prepping the squash, save those seeds: They make a nice garnish for the dish.

Toss the seeds with olive oil and a pinch each of salt and pepper on a rimmed baking sheet. Toast in a 375-degree oven for about 10 minutes, or until lightly browned and crisped. Let cool.

Smoky-Sweet Glazed Squash
Smoky-Sweet Glazed Squash

Smoky-Sweet Glazed Squash

4 to 5 pounds total winter squash, preferably a mix of delicata, butternut, acorn and/or kuri

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

¼ cup vegetable broth, preferably no-salt-added, or more as needed

¼ cup maple syrup

1 tablespoon PLUS 1 teaspoon smoked paprika

Kosher or flaky sea salt

Prep each squash as needed (peel or not; slice into wedges or rounds, etc.). You will want to keep some squash seeds to toast for a garnish, so rinse off any fibrous flesh that's attached to them and spread them on a paper towel to dry.

Peel the butternut squash and cut ¼-inch thick crosswise rounds from its center (seedless) section; cut the delicata squash crosswise into ½-inch rounds and spoon out the seedy center of each one; cut the acorn and kuri squash into 1-inch-thick wedges, then cut away the peel if desired. You may not use all of every squash, depending on the variety.

Working in batches of the same variety, lay the squash in a glass or other microwave-safe, shallow baking dish, so that pieces are only partially overlapping (for even cooking). Pour in about ½ cup water and cover tightly with plastic wrap, so no wrap is touching the food. Poke a few holes in the plastic so steam can escape; cook on 100 percent power in 4-minute increments, until the flesh is just tender enough to pierce with a fork. Transfer to a plate and repeat as needed, adding more water and changing the plastic wrap.

Just before serving, heat the butter and oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the broth, syrup and smoked paprika; cook for about 2 minutes, stirring, until well incorporated. The mixture should thicken a bit, into a syrupy glaze; if it begins to bubble up or looks in danger of burning, reduce the heat to medium-low or move the pan temporarily off the burner. Taste carefully, and add salt, as needed.

Working in batches, add the cooked squash pieces. Use tongs to turn them so all sides are coated. Cook for a few minutes, until warmed through, then transfer to a platter, making sure there's enough glaze left in the pan to take care of all the squash you have. Pour any remaining glaze over the array. Season lightly with the salt.

Scatter the toasted squash seeds over the top. Serve warm, or at room temperature.

Makes 12 servings.

Based on a recipe from The Clean Plates Cookbook: Sustainable, Delicious and Healthier Eating for Every Body by Jared Koch with Jill Silverman Koch (Running Press, 2013)

Turkey and Butternut Squash Chili
Turkey and Butternut Squash Chili

Turkey and Butternut Squash Chili

1 cup low-sodium chicken broth

¼ cup raw cashews

1 chipotle chile in adobo, PLUS 1 tablespoon of the sauce

1 tablespoon chile powder

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 pound ground turkey

2 cups diced butternut squash (about 10 ounces, from a 1 ½-pound squash)

2 medium onions, cut into small dice

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder

¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon kosher salt

1 (15-ounce) can pinto beans, preferably no-salt-added, drained and rinsed

1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes, with their juices

¼ cup cilantro leaves, plus more for garnish

Lime wedges, for serving

Combine the broth, cashews, chipotle and adobo sauce and the chile powder in a blender; puree until smooth.

Heat the oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat; once the oil shimmers, add the ground turkey and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring to break up any large clumps. The meat should be cooked through, with no trace of pink.

Reduce the heat to medium; add the squash, onions, garlic, cumin, cocoa powder, cinnamon and salt. Cook for about 5 minutes, until the onions have softened.

Add the cashew puree, pinto beans and the diced tomatoes and their juices, stirring to incorporate. Increase the heat to high just long enough to bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium or medium-low — just enough to maintain steady bubbles at the edges. Partially cover and cook for 35 minutes, until the squash is quite tender. Uncover and stir in the cilantro.

Serve hot, with more cilantro and the lime wedges.

Makes 6 servings.

Recipe adapted from Joy Manning

Kabocha Squash and Peanut Stew
Kabocha Squash and Peanut Stew

Kabocha squash is especially velvety and flavorful, but you can substitute the more common butternut or even sweet potatoes here.

Kabocha Squash and Peanut Stew

1 tablespoon canola oil

1 large onion, chopped

1 medium red bell pepper, diced

1 medium green bell pepper, diced

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 (2-inch) piece fresh ginger root, peeled and chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon cumin seed

1 teaspoon ground coriander

½ teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed

2 cups peeled, cubed kabocha squash

4 cups chicken or vegetable broth

1 (14.5-ounce) can crushed tomatoes, with their juices

½ cup creamy peanut butter

½ cup cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped, plus more for serving

2 jalapenos (seeded or not), ground to a paste with the flat of a knife or mortar and pestle, for serving

¼ cup roasted salted peanuts, chopped, for serving

Heat the oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, stir in the onion and bell peppers; cook for 5 to 8 minutes, until they have softened.

Add the tomato paste, ginger, garlic, cumin, coriander and salt; cook for about 1 minute, until the tomato paste darkens slightly and the spices become fragrant. Add the squash and stir to coat.

Pour in the broth and crushed tomatoes; increase the heat to high. Once the mixture begins to boil, reduce the heat to medium or medium-low (enough heat to maintain steady bubbles at the edges); cook, uncovered, for about 20 minutes, until the squash is so tender it breaks apart easily.

Thin the peanut butter by combining it with a ladleful of the stew in a medium bowl, stirring until smooth and pourable. Scrape the peanut butter mixture into the pot, and stir to combine. Add the cilantro leaves.

Use a potato masher to break up the squash (right in the pot), leaving some pieces intact for a chunky texture.

Serve with ground jalapeno paste, topped with the chopped peanuts and more cilantro leaves.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Adapted from a recipe by Joy Manning

Food on 11/28/2018

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