It’s time to dive into an autumnal-hued pile of seasonal produce: pumpkins, squash and sweet potatoes. If you’re anything like us, getting into the spirit of sweater weather — and the accompanying foods — is easy, but you sweat the small stuff. How do you turn gourds into a gourmet meal if sharp knives give you the pre-Halloween spooks?* How do you get to the “spaghetti” in spaghetti squash? Have coffee shops copyrighted the mysterious mixture known as pumpkin pie spice, or can you whip up your own batch?
Here are five foolproof guides to cook your way through a tastier fall season.
*Important fact: Most gourds are better for decorating, not eating. But you get the idea.
Want to know how to turn fall’s most iconic decoration into something edible? The large pumpkins typically used for making jack-o-lanterns offer more tricks than treats, as they tend to have watery and stringy flesh — not exactly ideal for cooking. Fortunately, most markets also stock up on smaller sugar pumpkins this time of year. Sugar pumpkins are aptly named because they are full of firm, sweet flesh that is bound to offer more flavor and freshness than the sad stuff you can find in a can.
To transform your sugar pumpkin into a creamy purée ready for use in soups, pasta and baked goods, cut it in half and scoop out the seeds. (Be sure to save those for later, so you can roast them with a little olive oil and a sprinkling of sea salt.) As Smitten Kitchen explains, just place the halves cut-side down on a baking sheet and roast until tender at 400 degrees, about 45 to 50 minutes. Then use a large spoon to scrape the cooked flesh off the skin and puree in a blender or food processor until smooth.
One 15-ounce can of pumpkin purée from the store is the equivalent of about 1 ¾ cup of purée. If you can’t find a sugar pumpkin, try out sweet potato or butternut squash with this method — just be sure to shorten the roasting time for these smaller vegetables.
This de-mystifying guide from A Veggie Venture, complete with step-by-step photographs, is a revelation. Providing a stabilizing flat surface for the bottom of this daunting squash and slicing the “neck” off from the “body” of the squash helps save time, frustration and the scary possibility of losing a finger in the process. You do not want real blood and gore as part of your Halloween costume.
Remember that not all vegetable peelers are created equal and that what might work easily with a simple carrot or run-of-the-mill potato might not quite do the trick with butternut squash’s thicker skin. Opt for a good old-fashioned knife instead.
To remove the seeds, use sharp edges of a grapefruit spoon or, better yet, an ice cream scoop for maximum efficiency.
There’s nothing quite like fresh-out-of-the-oven spiced pumpkin something to add coziness and warmth to a brisk fall evening. But spare your spice rack and your wallet the trouble, and ditch the premixed bottle of pumpkin pie spice. Chances are you already have all of the ingredients you need to make your own batch of the stuff.
52 Kitchen Adventures offers one mixture of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice and cloves — plus a pinch of a cardamom for extra fanciness — but the best part is you can experiment with the ratios to your own preference. Now you’re ready to whip up a batch of pumpkin bread, or simply spruce up your morning oatmeal.
Sweet potatoes are a good source of vitamins A and C, potassium, fiber and frustration. Sweet potato fries tossed in olive oil and seasonings can be baked into a flavorful, nutritious side dish or snack without the fat of fast food fries. But how do you get from rock-hard root vegetable to baked perfection?
The trick is to begin with a sharp knife. It sounds obvious, but it makes all the difference. As explained on cooking blog Carrots ‘n’ Cake, make lots of flat surfaces on your sweet potato to keep it stable throughout the cutting process. By continuously halving your potatoes, you can always have a flat surface to rest against the cutting board to safely create hearty wedge-style fries. Don’t bother with peeling the potatoes beforehand; just give them a good scrub and leave the extra fiber.
Healthy cooking blog Our Lady of Second Helpings offers a couple more tips for crispy yet healthy oven-baked sweet potato fries. First, par-boil the potatoes in salty water for three to eight minutes before baking; this helps give them a crisper exterior. Secondly, place the par-boiled wedges on wire cooling racks over a sheet pan to avoid a soggy underside while baking. This also means you can use less oil to achieve desired crispiness. You won’t miss the drive-thru after you’ve tried these!
Want to try out a low-carb, gluten-free alternative to pasta — only you can’t for the life of you cut your rock-like spaghetti squash in half? Remember, Martha always knows best. Martha Stewart suggests roasting the squash whole to make the rind and flesh softer. First, prick the squash all over with a small sharp knife (no oven explosions today!), then roast for 1 hour 20 minutes or until tender in an oven preheated to 375 degrees.
The Season to Taste cooking blog offers another tip for impatient cooks wanting to shorten the roasting time: Just place the whole squash in the microwave for a couple of minutes to soften the skin! Now grab a fork and start scraping away at the inside flesh of the squash to make your “pasta.”