by Mary Jane Butters

Buttercup squash, native to our soils and indigenous to our diets, can be a healthy, regular menu item during the fall and winter months. It's easy to bake, sweet and creamy, silky smooth and rich. Served plain, people mistake it for pumpkin pie filling. Its flesh is orange and very sweet. Its skin is dark green and round. (Pumpkin is more watery, stringy and less sweet.)

Buttercup can be stored in a cool, well-ventilated spot in your kitchen for several weeks. When shopping for buttercup, choose a squash that is hard and heavy, indicating that the flesh is moist and dense. Check for soft spots, a sign that it has been mishandled.

Even though many recipes require "peeling" a squash, the task can seem impossible. It's better to bake buttercup with the skin still on, then scoop the flesh out for use in recipes.

Wash the squash. Cut it in half with a broad, heavy knife. Use a spoon to scoop out and discard the strings and seeds. If you're in a hurry, it's just as easy to scoop them out after it's done. If you're really in a hurry, you can bake a buttercup whole, complete with its stem. All this requires is poking a hole in the top with a knife for the air to escape, like pricking a potato before you bake it. If you scoop the seeds out before you bake it, you should try baking the seeds separately -- a delicious treat! Put the seeds and their surrounding stringy mass in a colander and run cold water over them as you clean them with your hands. Don't worry about getting all the squash off the seeds. Spread them in a baking dish and cover them with melted butter as you would popcorn. Sprinkle with a little salt and bake at 350 degrees until brown. If you heat your home with a wood stove, spread the squash seeds evenly in the bottom of a heavy cast-iron skillet. Sprinkle with a tiny amount of lime juice and salt. Or try adding some soy sauce. Put the skillet on your wood stove and stir the seeds constantly until they are crisp and nicely browned. Keep your eye on them so they don't burn. Once cooled, they make a delicious dry snack.

One advantage to cutting the squash in half and baking it cut side down is the carmelization that occurs. The resulting glaze is sweet and "candied," without adding any additional sweeteners.

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Coat a baking dish with a light layer of butter or oil. Or you can add a small amount of water (about 1/2 inch) to the bottom of the pan instead of butter or oil. Bake halves cut side down until a long skewer glides easily through the squash, especially near the top. Baking may take as long as an hour, but you should check after 45 minutes.

Now you have a menu item that stores well in your refrigerator. Or it can be eaten as is, fresh from the oven, as an addition to any meal. It can be added to soups, stews, and savory tarts. It's tasty with butter, cream, garlic, a wide variety of cheeses, and toasted nuts or its own toasted seeds. It can be eaten with beans, rice, or potatoes. Try a curried squash soup with some hazelnuts as a garnish. Diluted with water or milk, it can be added to cornbread or biscuit recipes as a colorful, natural liquid sweetener. Spoonfuls can even be added to salads! You won't be disappointed when you allow a buttercup squash to join you at your table.

Sunday Morning Squash Muffins

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a 12-muffin pan with muffin cups.

Whisk together:

1 1/4 cups cornmeal

3/4 cup flour

1 to 4 tablespoons sugar, if desired

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

In a separate bowl, whisk together:

2 eggs

1 1/3 cups liquid squash

*Liquid squash is baked squash diluted with water or milk (about half and half ratio), until it is the consistency of buttermilk or heavy cream.

3 tablespoons melted butter or oil

Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and stir until just moistened. Spoon the batter into the muffin tins. Bake until a toothpick inserted comes out clean, about 10 to 15 minutes. Serve hot with butter and fresh fruit.

Publication date: 02/20/03

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Through Dec. 20
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