Acorn squash, with their bowl-like shape and size, are begging to be filled with a delicious pilaf of one sort or another, but the same old fall and winter flavors can get a bit boring. This post contains some ideas for sprucing up this great vegetarian dish.
Acorn Squash: Nature’s Best Bowl
Half of an acorn squash, after you empty it of its seeds, is about the size and shape of a bowl. It’s as though nature herself demanded that we bake these squash and fill them, bowl-style, with something else. Regarding taste, the delicate, slightly sweet flavor of the acorn squash is, among edible bowls, second perhaps only to the deep-fried tortilla bowl. The big difference of course, is that acorn squash and, indeed, most types of squash you could name – is a super-food. There’s simply no comparing a deep-fried tortilla to the fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, and iron offered by the low-calorie acorn squash. So, given that it’s practically required to fill acorn squash halves like bowls, there is only one question remaining. What do we fill them with?
Cooking With Quinoa
Acorn squash is a variety of winter squash, which means that it’s in season in fall and winter. A staple of holiday cooking, acorn squash is often paired with other winter flavors like rosemary, nutmeg, and walnuts. These are all good ideas, but maybe you want to try something different. For starters, there isn’t a lot of protein in acorn squash (although there is some), so you could consider branching out from the usual bread or rice-based pilaf stuffing. This is a great opportunity to try out a protein-rich grain that has exploded in popularity in recent years: quinoa. If you’re new to cooking with quinoa (pronounced “KEEN-wah”), it might seem a little scary. But never fear: this flavorful, versatile, quick-cooking grain can provide a basis for a truly enjoyable pilaf.
Broth and Spices
Of course, any time you’re cooking grain, you need to cook it in broth. You probably don’t have to be told, but it never hurts to have a reminder. Filled acorn squash makes a wonderful vegetarian side or entrée, so consider cooking your quinoa in vegetable broth or no-chicken broth. No matter what you cook it in, though, quinoa is not enough by itself to do justice to the acorn squash. You will need a spice of some kind, and you may find that sage is just the thing. Sage has a festive flavor that will give your squash the warm, comfort-food feeling that you want, but it isn’t as overused as some other fall and winter spices.
Completing the Pilaf
You can add almost anything you like to your quinoa pilaf, but if you want to stay away from the obvious, you could try sun-dried tomatoes and feta cheese. These flavors will surprise and delight whoever you are cooking for, because they are usually reserved for summer dishes. However, since sun-dried tomatoes are dried, they can be used any time of year, and there is no reason to reserve feta for the warmer months. Paired with traditionally “winter” flavors, sun-dried tomato and feta can brighten the dish, and if you are entertaining, your guests’ palates will be met with unexpected combinations that they’ll be sure to remember. Caramelized onion and garlic will round out the flavors and bring out the sweetness of the squash.
How to Bake the Squash
In case you have never cooked an acorn squash before, here are a few pointers. Although acorn squash cooks quicker than some varieties, you should still allow 40-60 minutes. Cut the squash in half and scoop out the insides. Cut a small slice off the back of each half so that they can sit flat on a platter when they’re done. Brush the cut sides with butter and place them face-down on a baking sheet. The squash can bake happily away in the 350-400 degree oven while you prepare your exciting quinoa filling. They are ready when they yield to a fork.