Gluten-Free Tuesday: Delicata Squash

"Its name is appropriate—this squash is delicate, weighing less than a pound, with thin skin."

[Photograph: Shauna James Ahern]

My brother and I hunched over our pumpkins, racing to see who could scoop all the seeds out first. After our parents cut the top hunk off the thing, we stuck our arms in as far as they could go to rid our soon-to-be jack-o'-lanterns of unwanted weight. I flicked the stringy mess onto the newspapers scattered on the kitchen floor. From this distance, I'd like to think I regarded the process with imagination, pretending the goo was zombie slime, or something more artful. Mostly, in my mind was: "Ewww. Get this away from me."

We had to forge our way through the flesh to reach the goal: the chance to carve faces into the thick shell. However, I was always disappointed in the outcome, since my mother handed us such flimsy steak knives that they bent when I tried to cut out the eyes.

(I'm not blaming her, since it's all we owned at the time. And now that I've grown up, I know that it was my lack of artistic skill that left the triangle nose slumping to one side, the mouth a ragged patch of teeth.)

A month later, we ate pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving dinner. My brother, even as a child, wanted a quarter of the pie to himself. My mother made the crust, but she swirled the whipped cream out of a can. We loved to squirt it into our mouths after she finished decorating the pie. And as far as I knew, the filling for the pumpkin pie came out of a can too.

I didn't know, for a long time, that the rich orange flesh that stuck to my forearms as I carved out my pumpkin was also edible.

There must be some of you who ate vegetables other than corn, tomatoes, green beans, and carrots as kids. Did you eat fava bean purée in spring? Or boiled edamame with salt? Roasted parsnips? Pickled cabbage? Did you grow up on a farm or just have parents determined for good roughage?

That wasn't me as a kid. Or any of my friends. I grew up in Southern California, where the sun shines all year long (and the weathermen apologize on the days it rains), and so produce is available whenever you want it. Still, I didn't eat more than about ten vegetables for 18 years. It's not that I refused to eat most of my vegetables. It's that my family—and most of the families we knew—didn't know of the existence of any besides the standards.

Going gluten-free has opened an entire world of vegetables to me.

As soon as I realized that my usual quick-grabbed sandwiches and pizza slices late at night were gone, I started trying everything I could find that did not contain gluten. I learned to love cauliflower and beets (especially roasted), giving up two steadfast beliefs about myself in the world.

Lima beans still remain unconquered, however.

I made a standing Saturday-morning date with my local farmers' market, learning to buy the vegetables available in season. Jerusalem artichokes, kohlrabi, lobster mushrooms, and dandelion greens—they all went into my basket as soon as they arrived at my favorite stands. When I met my chef husband, I began to think of "exotic" vegetables as typical.

Finally, I made a pumpkin pie from scratch. The stringy flesh no longer bothered me. The taste of the finished pie made all the work worth it.

Still, until last year, I had never eaten a delicata squash. Oh sure, I had branched out to butternut squash long before, loving the way the soft flesh yielded to the tongue after roasting. Soups, stews, or straight out of the oven—butternut squash stayed in the kitchen all autumn long.

But I had never even seen a delicata until we picked one up at the farmers' market last fall.

Delicata is an heirloom squash, meaning it was grown for generations before the need to ship vegetables thousands of miles still intact changed the way produce is grown in this country. Its name is appropriate—this squash is delicate, weighing less than a pound, with thin skin. This means you don't have to wield a cleaver to hack through the shell.

Danny and I roasted the delicata, which took no more than 30 minutes, and sat on the couch, plates balanced on our knees. He had been dubious. How good could this be when it looked so tiny compared to the butternuts and Mother Hubbards? I dug in. Sweet, mild, a smooth bite—this delicata made us race through with our forks. In fact, I ate so fast that I forgot to separate the skin from the flesh and ate both in one mouthful.

Here's the sweetest discovery about this squash: You can eat the skin after roasting it.

We ate one every day for weeks after that. And yesterday, when we saw the first ones at our local farmstand this season, we both shouted out loud. "They're back!"

You can use delicata squash to make salads and soups, side dishes, and dips. But in this house, the standard is sweet roasted delicata, simple with olive oil and sea salt.

After we scoop out the seeds, of course.

How to Roast a Delicata Squash

1. Preheat the oven to 375°F.

2. Cut the squash in half lengthwise.

3. Season the insides with a bit of kosher salt and cracked black pepper. Perhaps you'd like to try a pinch of nutmeg, a dash of curry powder, some ginger? It's up to you. Make enough of these and you can create a slightly different taste with each meal.

4. Throw them into a small casserole dish. Drizzle with a bit of olive oil and a pat of butter. Cover with aluminum foil.

5. Roast until the squash is soft and yields to your fork, about 30 minutes.

6. Eat.

About the author: Shauna James Ahern AKA Gluten-Free Girl writes one of the most popular gluten-free cooking blogs out there, and has a book of the same name.

Gluten-Free Tuesday: Delicata Squash

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