Spaghetti squash isn't a small-town festival where women stomp pasta in giant wooden vats. It's a vegetable whose name makes perfect sense when you cook it--underneath the rind, the flesh separates into long pasta-like strands.
Along with butternut squash, turban squash, and pumpkins, spaghetti squash is part of the winter squash family, sometimes known as "keeper" squash because they will last for several months in cool storage. Their hard rind that protects them from moisture, an attribute that people have been taking advantage of for thousands of years--parts of winter squash have been found in pre-Columbian archeological sites in South America.
North American natives grew them too. In fact, our name for squash comes from the Naraganset word "askutasquash" which the colonists corrupted to "isquotersquash," (think it in a Dutch accent) later shortened to just plain squash.
To the early settlers, squash was just another mysterious New World food that they ate to survive the hard winters, but today's winter squashes are not such a puzzle. They are easy to grow, given a rich soil, plenty of moisture and space to climb and store well.
At the grocery store most even come labeled with directions and recipe hints. Look for ones that seem heavy for their size with a hard skin and no soft spots or cuts. The average four-pound spaghetti squash will yield about five cups.
As for storage, keep them at room temperature for up to a month. For longer-term storage, ideally you need a place where the temperature hovers around 50 degrees. Unfortunately, most homes today don't come equipped with caves or old-fashioned cave-mimicking root cellars, so we rely on food brokers and warehouses to store vegetables like winter squash for us.
You should grow or bring home a spaghetti squash if for no other reason than because it is fun. Kids in particular delight in this vegetable surprise, but spaghetti in a shell is a delight for everyone. It has a mild flavor that makes it a good substitute for its namesake, but it's also good plain with a little butter and sprinkled with parmesan or in this casserole: toss the cooked squash with some leftover ham and a simple cheese sauce made from butter, flour, milk and your favorite cheese and bake it for thirty minutes.
Before you use spaghetti squash, though, you have to cook it. There are a couple of basic methods. The first begins by cutting it in half lengthwise and scooping out the seeds, then cooking for 30 to 45 minutes face-down in a little water on top of the stove or on a cookie sheet in the oven. If your squash feels more like a 2 x 4 than food when you try to cut it, just pierce the skin in several places (with an ice pick if necessary) and bake it whole at 375 degrees for 45 minutes, turning it once. Either way, it's ready when the skin gives easily under pressure and the meat is tender.
Once it's cooked, let it cool for 10 to 20 minutes so it will be easier to handle, then cut it in half (if it wasn't already), remove the seeds and use a fork to scrape out the meat--it will come out in long, pasta-like strands. I usually strain this to get rid of extra moisture that might make a dish a little soupy.
Spaghetti squash is a dieter's dream: a four-ounce serving of spaghetti squash has only 37 calories. (The same amount of pasta has 167 calories.) Try this meatless tomato sauce and you can eat a generous serving for only 240 calories and only 3 grams of fat.
Spaghetti Squash with Tomatoes and Herbs
- spaghetti squash, cooked
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 teaspoons olive oil
- 1 28-ounce can tomatoes, drained
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh or frozen basil
- 1/8 teaspoon dried oregano
- 2-3 tablespoons grated parmesan or romano cheese
Sauté the garlic in the oil until it's softened but not burned. Chop the tomatoes (I usually squish them in my hand over the pot) add them along with the herbs to the garlic and simmer for ten to fifteen minutes. Ladle this on the squash and top with freshly grated parmesan for a light dinner.
For a spaghetti squash lasagna (something of a non sequitur since lasagna refers to the pasta and that's what the squash replaces), layer the cooked squash strands with sauce and cheese, just as you would regular lasagna, and bake for thirty minutes at 350F.
You can also toss the cooked squash with half a cup of orange juice, the same amount of chopped parsley and a little salt or pepper for a warm salad or side dish. Any leftovers can be eaten cold the next day or reheated in the microwave.
The first spaghetti squash I ever cooked (or ate, for that matter) was given to me years ago by a friend with a farming father. Since then, I've grown and given away my share--one of the great joys of gardening.