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How to tame that intimidating winter squash

Hard winter squash is a delicious and versatile vegetable that can be used as a side dish, in fillings for ravioli or lasagna, as a noodle alternative, in soups, salads, stuffed and so on.

This time of year, I crave a hot, buttery butternut or acorn ``squash mash’’ — think of it as an alternative to mashed potatoes. It’s comforting, filling and healthy to boot.

But hard winter squash is so difficult to cut through that many people don’t cook them, or they only buy them already cubed from the grocery store. Even I hated prepping winter squash. It is hard to get your knife through in one slice. Often the knife gets stuck halfway through the squash.

This Oct. 22, 2019 photo shows cooked mashed squash in Amagansett, N.Y. The squash roasted whole and uncut has more flavor than roasting it in chunks or boiling it. (Elizabeth Karmel via AP)

So, I decided a few years ago to see if I could “hack” the winter squash cooking process.

I bought a whole acorn squash and placed it in the oven without any prep. I didn’t wash or cut it — just removed the paper sticker from the outside and placed it on the middle rack of my preheated 400 F oven. I put foil under the squash to catch any drippings. And then I walked away for a little more than an hour.

When I opened the oven door and checked on the squash, it was still intact but no longer hard. When I pressed on the outside shell, it felt softer, like an almost ripe pear. I turned off the heat and closed the oven door. I let the squash cool in the residual heat of the oven for another hour, but generally 20 minutes works just as well.

Depending on the size of your squash, you may need to cook it more or less, but it is almost impossible to overcook. If a paring knife can be inserted easily into the center of the squash, it is done.

I carefully removed the squash to a cutting board. With a long serrated (bread) knife, I sliced the squash through the middle with ease. The truth is that I could have used almost any knife because it was cooked through and the skin was no longer tough.

I scooped out the seeds with a spoon and discarded them. Then I scooped the silky, steaming squash into a bowl. I added a bit of salt and dried sage and a healthy knob of butter, and mashed it with a fork. It was one of the best “mashed anythings” I had ever eaten!

The squash roasted whole and uncut had so much more flavor than roasting it in chunks or boiling it. I liken it to the idea of bone-in meat having more flavor than boneless meat.

I couldn’t believe how easy and stress-free the squash was to make. Now, I look forward to cooking winter squash instead of dreading it. In addition to the acorn squash, I cook every kind of squash that I can find, from spaghetti squash to butternut and Hubbard to Delicata, using this method. It roasts perfectly every time.

If you are watching your carbs or just want to eat more vegetables and use spaghetti squash as a pasta substitute, this is one hack you can’t pass up.

For a more sophisticated version of squash mash, brown the butter before mixing it in with the cooked squash.

Or season it any way you like. Try it sweetened with maple syrup, nutmeg and cinnamon, or sprinkled with crisp bacon and fried shallots. Add dried cranberries, goat cheese and pecans or top it off with marshmallows. Squash straddles both the sweet and savory, and shines with almost any of your favorite flavor combinations.