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Butternut squash

Strips of butternut squash can be sautéd with olive oil, cream and parmesan cheese for butternut alfredo. 

I love the beauty of autumn in Flagstaff, but I am always sad to see the end of fresh summer vegetables from my garden. Now that fall is here it is time to start enjoying this year’s winter squash. Pumpkins have become a symbol of fall, but acorn, spaghetti and butternut squash offer a great variety of flavors.

Most winter squash grow very well in our climate. It's best to start them indoors in late May and move them outside in the middle of June so they have the maximum growing season. Each plant needs a bed of well-amended soil about the size of a bushel basket, which gives them enough room for their roots. These massive plants flourish with huge leaves, long vines, and copious yellow flowers.

For a special treat, male blossoms can be stuffed and fried. Be sure to leave enough male blossoms to pollinate the female flowers that appear on the tiny new squash. The winter squash will grow and mature just in time for the first light frost to give them a hint of sweetness. Once harvested the squash should be cured in a sunny window for two weeks then moved to a cool dry place for up to nine months.

Most winter squash recipes start with splitting them in half, scooping out the seeds and roasting until tender. Spaghetti squash has a mild savory flavor and the cooked flesh easily shreds into pasta-like strands. To maintain the texture of those strands it is best to bake spaghetti squash with the cut side down on a cookie sheet with a little water. Cook for about thirty minutes or until soft. Scoop out the bright yellow flesh and shred it with your hands or a fork. To make Spaghetti Squash Pomodoro sauté these al dente strands with olive oil, garlic, tomatoes and fresh chopped basil. Toss with fresh Parmesan Cheese before serving. For a quick side dish, sauté the strands with butter, salt, pepper and a hint of nutmeg.

Acorn squash, which has a sweet, nutty flavor, is relatively small so you can serve a roasted half squash. Filling acorn squash with a Thanksgiving style bread stuffing makes an interesting entrée. Each bite combines a little squash with the stuffing. As an alternative a smaller wedge can be roasted with brown sugar and butter as a side dish.

Unlike most winter squash, which are hollow, butternut squash has a solid neck and a thick wall around the seeds at its base. This makes it easy to peel and cut without roasting. The neck can be sliced or cut into fettuccine style strips on a spiral slicer. Sauté those strips with olive oil, cream and parmesan cheese for butternut alfredo. I have cut-leaf shaped slices of butternut with a cookie cutter and sautéed them to create a dish that appeared to be strewn with fall leaves.

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When I owned the Cottage Place Restaurant our most popular soup was a creamy Winter Squash Velouté flavored with apples, curry powder, chipotle and fall spices. There is a recipe for this soup featuring butternut squash at the Coconino Master Gardener blog. It will also give you a way to use some of our local apples.

Pumpkins are associated with many fall desserts, like the traditional pumpkin pie. Many varieties of pumpkins do well in Flagstaff. For years I have been growing a hybrid called a French Pumpkin. Since it is only mildly sweet I puree it with brown sugar for desserts. My favorite fall dessert is Pumpkin Cheesecake made with cinnamon, nutmeg and a hazelnut crust. This recipe is also posted online. 

Try different winter squash this season and next summer plant the ones you prefer. After writing and doing the research for this article I have decided to plant more spaghetti squash next year along with my French Pumpkin. Seeds for many winter squash are available at the Grow Flagstaff! Seed Library at the Coconino County Extension Office.

Enjoy being creative with this healthy fall vegetable.

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Frank Branham is a Coconino Master Gardener and retired chef.

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