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Thursday, Oct. 28, 2004 01:35 am

Aliens have arrived. Now eat them.

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FARMERS’ MARKET Lee Shoemaker of Kilbourne had some mighty big pumpkins for sale at the Old Capitol Farmers’ Market on a recent Saturday. On the left in the foreground is the Big Moon variety; on the right is a Big Mac. The downtown market
Photo by Ginny Lee

Have you noticed the large crate of strange-looking green, orange, and yellow fruits that showed up recently at the supermarket? These tough-skinned beauties are winter squash. Not only do they make fetching table decorations, but they can also be used in many recipes.

Winter squash are harvested when the fruit is mature, the rind is hard, and the seeds are completely developed. Summer squash, such as zucchini, are harvested while still immature.

The largest selection of winter squash is available from September through November. When harvesting or purchasing, select a squash that's dry and heavy for its size, with the stem still attached. Look for an intact hard rind with a dull sheen; avoid squash with cracks, bruises, decay, shriveling, or blackening. With the stem attached, a winter squash will keep for several months stored in a dry, cool (50° to 55° F) location.

Varieties to look for:

• The buttercup squash, eight inches in diameter and turban-shaped, has a flavor similar to that of peanut butter.

• The beige butternut squash is shaped like a vase. Its fine-grained flesh is great for pureeing.

• The acorn squash, which resembles an acorn in shape, is typically green and scored with deep furrows. It's a good baking squash, easy to cut; serve it filled with butter and brown sugar and sprinkled with cinnamon or nutmeg.

• The football-shaped spaghetti squash is usually light yellow. The crunchy interior strands of this squash, which have a sweet, mild taste, are served just like pasta. Try tossing cooked spaghetti squash with your favorite marinara sauce or pesto.

Winter squash may be baked, boiled, steamed, broiled, or pan-fried and used in recipes for casseroles, breads, stir-fries, and desserts. With the exception of spaghetti squash, most varieties can be substituted for one another in recipes.

To bake a winter squash, cut it in half and remove the seeds and stringy parts. Cutting a winter squash is not always an easy task; a small meat handsaw may be necessary to cut open some of the tougher-skinned varieties. Place unpeeled pieces cut sides down in baking dish, then add a quarter-inch of water and bake in a 350°F oven until the squash is tender (30 minutes to an hour). Check for doneness by piercing with a fork. When the squash is nearly done, turn the pieces right side up and season them with margarine, brown sugar, cinnamon, or nutmeg. The rind is not eaten, but the seeds may be roasted.

Winter squash also make good pies. Except for the color, most people cannot tell whether pumpkin or squash has been used in a pie.

For more information, visit the University of Illinois Extension "Watch Your Garden Grow" Web site, www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/veggies/index.html.

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