Delicata squash and kale

Rings of roasted delicata squash atop a kale salad.

In our two-part series earlier this fall, I shared my love for winter squash but with a caveat: They can be unwieldy beasts with armorlike skin that may require the brute force of a cleaver. Even with a few taming tricks up one’s sleeve, the handling and prep can arguably feel like a project.

Apologies in advance, but I have never understood the allure of the acorn squash, which with its darling shape and smaller stature tricks you into thinking it's easy to cut in half (it's not) and that dinner can be ready in an hour (not quite).

The good news: There is a winter squash variety with all kinds of practical weeknight appeal, and her name is Delicata. Oblong in shape, the delicata is about the length of most kitchen knives (6 to 8 inches) and weighs about 8 ounces, dimensions that make it easy to hold in one hand.

Available in shades of yellow or cream, the delicata is nearly always ridged and sometimes is striped. The skin is easy to pierce with a knife, making kitchen prep a breeze, and it’s so thin you can eat it (and I highly recommend that you do). Inside, the flesh is more yellow than orange, and after a short stint in the oven, it becomes creamy, very much like a baked sweet potato.

In fact, delicata cook time is about 30 minutes (about half the time for a sweet potato), the virtues of that thin skin and shallow flesh.

Its easygoing nature also invites creativity both at the cutting board and on the menu. Leaving the skin on, you can slice the delicata numerous ways — into rings, spears and boats, to name a few — possibilities that are simply not available with bulkier varieties of winter squash. More cut shapes means greater versatility; I love how squash rings and half moons translate equally well in a salad as they do smushed on top of a pizza.

Over the course of our long friendship, the delicata has become a cold-weather staple in my kitchen because it requires little advance preparation. So often while it roasts is when I figure out my dinner plan. What follows are some tried-and-true serving ideas and for getting more acquainted with possibly the friendliest winter squash of all.

Delicata squash lineup

Delicata squash inside and out.

HOW TO ROAST DELICATA SQUASH

Preheat the oven to 400 F.

Line a sheet pan with parchment paper.

Wash squash and remove any stuck-on dirt, then towel dry. Trim both ends.

For rings, slice in half and use a teaspoon to remove seeds. Slice into rounds about 1/2-inch thick.

For half-moons or boats, slice in half lengthwise, then scoop out seeds and stringy pulp. Slice into 1/2-inch crescent shapes or leave whole.

Place in a medium bowl and coat with enough oil (neutral or olive oil is fine) until squash is slightly glistening, 1 to 2 tablespoons. Salt if you like, about 1/4 teaspoon. It’s not a big deal if you don’t.

Arrange in a single layer on lined pan. For rings or half-moons, roast for 20 minutes, then turn on second side and roast until fork tender, 5 to 10 minutes more. For boats, roast until fork tender and the flesh begins to recede at the edges, 30 to 35 minutes.

SERVING IDEAS

  • A salad of hearty greens: Think less about lettuce here and more about sturdy and even assertive-flavored leaves, including kale, radicchio, arugula, escarole, or spinach, which complement the sweetness of the squash. One of my favorite combinations is a raw kale caesar, which we featured in the spring. (Check it out at bit.ly/KaleSaladSPC.) You can add nuts, cheese, dried fruit, sliced fennel, red onion, celery or oranges and build as you wish. I recommend a vinaigrette versus a creamy dressing.
  • Pizza or flatbread topping: Roasted delicata easily spreads on top of your favorite flatbread and adds beautiful color and layers of flavor. I recommend toasting or baking relatively unadorned flatbread, then smearing the squash on top. I like a squeeze of lemon or a handful of chopped cherry tomatoes, some chopped rosemary, mint and a drizzle of olive oil.
  • Tossed with pasta: Short pasta, such as penne or ziti works particularly well, and I might think about sage leaves warmed in olive oil, then blended with walnuts and maybe a handful of red pepper flakes. A spoonful of ricotta cheese and a sprinkle of nutmeg deepen the layers; ground turkey is another wonderful toss-in.
Delicata squash boats
Delicata squash boats filled with pearl barley, almonds, parsley and dates.

ALL ABOARD

Another fun serving option for delicata is to make squash boats. Keep this one in your back pocket if you have a Thanksgiving guest who does not enjoy turkey. Best of all, you can make up the filling as you go along and use what you have on hand. 

Here are a few elements that make delicata squash boats sing.

  • A cooked grain: rice, pearl barley, quinoa, farro. In previous years, I have used red wehani rice for the splash of color. You'll need about 1/4 cup of cooked grains per squash half, so do the math depending on number of servings.

Toss the grains with a light coating of oil, as if you were dressing a salad, while it's still warm.

  • Dried fruit of choice: cranberries, currants, cherries or dates are trusty options. It adds texture, color, sweetness and creates “stuffing” oomph to this filling. Use about 1 tablespoon per squash half.
  • Nuts: Your choice of pistachios, walnuts, almonds or pecans, about 1 tablespoon per squash half. If dealing with a nut allergy, omit.
  • Seasonings: The grain filling needs warmth of spices. Consider fennel seeds, ground cinnamon or finely chopped ginger, or even lemon zest, about 1/4 teaspoon per squash half.
  •  Greenery: A little herbal garnish adds a pop of color especially at a holiday table. Parsley works well, but so does finely chopped sage.

Once the squash boats are filled, feel free to return to a 350 F oven and heat for about 15 minutes, until warmed through. Filled squash boats keep refrigerated for a few days and reheat well.

DON’T WAIT

The downside of a thin skinned squash is that it is more susceptible to mold and will not keep as long as its thicker-skinned relatives. Store your whole, uncooked squash unrefrigerated and use within a few weeks.