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story.lead_photo.caption Roasted cheese pumpkin is stuffed with Gruyere and Swiss cheeses, cream and white wine for a creamy side dish or appetizer.(Gretchen McKay/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS)

Piled high in giant cardboard boxes at grocery stores or stacked beside the peppers and potatoes at the farmers market, these thick-skinned, bright-orange winter squashes are ripe for the picking, in several shapes and sizes.

So many will never make it onto a dinner table. For that, you have Halloween to blame. According to the National Retail Association, nearly half of all Americans — some 152 million — were to chisel pumpkins into jack-o'-lanterns. All told, Americans were expected to spend a whopping $687 million on carving pumpkins in 2020, or about $100 million more than last year.

Members of the Cucurbitaceae family serve as lovely seasonal table decorations. But the gourds — which include everything from pear-shaped butternut to plump little sugar pumpkins to striped cushaws and grayish-blue monster-sized hubbards — also are a relatively inexpensive and flavorful way to pack some nutrition into a fall or winter meal.

One of the newer varieties is 'Tetsukabuto,' an innovative kabocha/butternut cross with Japanese roots that's making its debut this year at Who Cooks For You Farm in New Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

"It's my favorite," says Chris Brittenburg of the squash's sweet and nutty flesh, which cooks up creamy like a custard in the oven. "It's so much more moist."

This has been a pretty good year for winter squashes, says Brittenburg, who started the first-generation organic family farm with his wife, Aeros Lillstrom, in 2009. Well, so long as farmers had access to water, that is. The colorful fall fruits love hot and dry weather. But they also need an occasional drink to ensure a bountiful harvest.

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"The quality has been pretty good this year," agrees Adam Voll, manager of Soergel Orchards in Franklin Park, where butternuts, acorn and spaghetti squashes are popular buys in the farm market. Soergel also offers blue hubbard squash, a hard-shelled variety that many find intimidating. It can grow up to 20 pounds and takes a real effort to cut, but cooks are rewarded with a sweet and nutty-tasting flesh.

Hubbard is the quintessential squash to puree into a filling for pie, breads and pasta dishes. They store for an exceptionally long time if kept in a dry and cool place, Voll said.

Eating squash may be even more American than apple pie. Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere, winter squashes have been grown in North America for thousands of years. Native Americans roasted or boiled them and also preserved the flesh in syrup as jams. When the colonists arrived, they were initially skeptical of it but with time included it in their diet. The squash was among the few foods that sustained them during the long and inhospitable winters.

Today, Michigan grows the most squash in the U.S., followed by California, Oregon and Florida. The vast majority is sold fresh.

Technically, all pumpkins are a type of winter squash but not all winter squashes are pumpkins, although the terms are often used interchangeably. All belong to the same genetic family — Cucurbit.

Sweeter than the zucchini, pattypans and other summer squashes, the winter squash's flesh is high in fiber and betacarotene. The squash is hard because it is fully ripened on the vine instead of being picked before the seeds and rinds begin to harden. Delicata squash is an exception, with its tender and edible skin.

In addition to popular orange hues, winter squashes can be yellow, white, green, striped, speckled, red and even blue. They can be large and smooth, or small and covered in bumps. One of the most visually striking is turban squash, a rich and nutty heirloom variety also known as Turk's cap or French turban squash. Picture a pumpkin wearing a brightly striped hat, and you've got it. It's excellent for baking and stuffing.

An added winter squash bonus is that it can last for weeks and even months because of its hard exterior.

Because they're firmer than their summer counterparts, winter squashes play a starring role in everything from soups and curries to lasagna, casseroles and countless desserts. They can be stuffed with meat, grains and vegetables, too.

Don't fret if you don't have a can of pureed pumpkin because it's incredibly easy to make it at home. All you need to do, says third-generation farmer Patty Janoski, is to break the stem off any variety of pie pumpkin, cut it in half vertically, scoop out the seeds and bake it face-down on a greased cookie sheet at 350 degrees for an hour or so, or until the shell falls off the pulp.

"Then scoop the insides out and put it in a blender," she says.

Don't toss out the seeds. When seasoned with sea salt, they are perfect for snacking. First rinse the seeds and then bake in a 250-degree oven until they're dry and crispy.

When purchasing a winter squash, look for one that feels heavy and has a dry, sturdy stem. Avoid those with soft spots, cracks, bruises or mold. Warts and minor discolorations are fine.

When it's time to start cooking, you'll need a sharp serrated knife to cut through the rind. A steady hand helps, too.

Guide to popular varieties

Delicata: Very sweet, it tastes similar to sweet potatoes. Its skin is tender and so it doesn't have to peeled. It can be stuffed, sliced into rings and roasted, sauteed or steamed.

Butternut: One of the most popular winter squashes, it has a distinctive bell shape. The bright-orange flesh is mild, sweet, buttery and nutty. Can be pureed for soup, roasted or cut into cubes for stews and curries.

Butterkin: A hybrid between a butternut squash and a pumpkin. Sweet flesh that can be roasted and pureed for soups, stews, pasta, risotto, pies, and custards. It also can be stuffed.

Sugar pumpkin: Also known as pie pumpkin, it is on the smaller side. Its firm and sweet flesh turns creamy when steamed, roasted or sauteed. The pumpkin is a classic choice for pureeing for pies and other baked goods. It also can be stuffed or cut into chunks for stew.

Acorn: It has a thick dark green or white skin and sweet orange-yellow flesh. It can be roasted, stuffed, baked or grilled with the skin on. Its small size makes it relatively easy to cut and work with.

Kabocha: The hard and knobby green-skinned squash has a yellow-orange interior. Sweet with a nutty and earthy flavor, it has a slightly dry and sweet potato-like texture. A staple in Japanese cuisine, it's great for soup and curries and also can be braised, roasted, stuffed or mashed.

Hubbard: The extremely hard and thick skin is difficult to peel comes in grayish-blue, dark green, red or golden colors. The pumpkin is great for stuffing and baking, and is especially good for pies. It is often sold pre-cut because it can grow to up to 20 pounds.

Spaghetti: The smooth-skinned and mild-flavored pumpkin's flesh cooks into thin, spaghetti-like strands. It's great for pasta-like preparations and gluten-free diets.

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ROASTED CHEESE PUMPKIN

Cheese pumpkin — also known as Cinderella pumpkin — is so named because its rind looks like a squat wheel of cheese. Related to butternut squash, its smooth flesh and string-free interior makes it great for stuffing and baking.

Here, a whole pumpkin is hollowed out and then stuffed with a mix of Gruyere and Swiss cheeses, cream, white wine and honey. This dish also can be made with a butterkin squash.

1 cheese pumpkin, 4 to 5 pounds

3/4 cup shredded Gruyere cheese

1 cup shredded Swiss cheese

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

1 cup heavy cream

1/3 cup dry white wine

1 1/2 teaspoons honey

Few pinches of nutmeg

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 (12-inch) baguette, sliced thin

2 cloves garlic, peeled but intact

Vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Cut the top out of the pumpkin and scrape out the insides. (Save the seeds for roasting.)

Toss the cheeses and thyme together in a bowl. In a large measuring cup or bowl, combine the cream, wine, honey, nutmeg and salt.

Toast the baguette slices and rub each slice with garlic. Lay a few baguette slices in a single layer inside the pumpkin. Top with some of the cheese mixture, then pour on some of the cream mixture. Repeat this until all of your ingredients are used up. (You might have a bit left over; save any baguette for serving.)

Pop the top back on the pumpkin, place the pumpkin in a casserole or an oven-safe dish. Coat the outside liberally with oil.

Roast in hot oven for about 2 hours or until the pumpkin is tender all over and easily pierced with a fork. Let it stand for about 15 minutes.

Serve in scoops or slathers on top of toast rounds, crackers, pita chips or slices of apples.

Serves 4.

— Adapted from food52.com

THAI PUMPKIN CURRY

Pumpkin curry is a standard offering on Thai menus. It's easy enough to make at home and is a great way to use up all those veggies in your refrigerator crisper. Any yellow flesh pumpkin or winter squash will do — I used chunks of sweet sugar pumpkin.

Red and green Thai curry pastes can be used pretty much interchangeably, but green is generally a bit milder than red.

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 medium onion, chopped

2 medium carrots, chopped

3 cloves garlic

2 tablespoons freshly grated ginger

1 tablespoon ground turmeric

1 red bell pepper, sliced

2 1/2 cups cubed kabocha squash or pie pumpkin

8 ounces green beans, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces

1 red chili pepper, sliced, optional

2 to 3 tablespoons Thai red or green curry paste, or more to taste

1 (13.5-ounce) can full-fat coconut milk

1 cup water

2 tablespoons lime juice

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

Salt and pepper

Cooked rice for serving

Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion and carrots and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, ginger and turmeric and saute for 30 seconds.

Add the bell pepper, pumpkin, green beans and chili pepper, if using, and saute for 1 minute longer.

Add red curry paste, coconut milk and water, and stir well to combine. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the pumpkin is tender and the sauce has thickened, about 20 to 25 minutes.

Remove from heat and stir in the lime juice, cilantro, salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm over steamed rice.

Serves 6.

— Gretchen McKay

ROASTED DELICATA SQUASH RINGS WITH CHIPOTLE SAUCE

Delicata squash has a thin, delicate skin that doesn't need to be peeled before eating. It is creamy and sweet, and it gets even sweeter when it is cut into rings or half moons and roasted. To spice it up, I like to dust the squash with a little chili powder and cayenne and serve it with a fiery chipotle mayonnaise for dipping.

For squash

2 medium delicata squash, scrubbed clean

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 teaspoon kosher salt

Black pepper to taste

3/4 teaspoon chili powder

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

For dipping sauce

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1 tablespoon finely chopped chives

2 teaspoons adobo sauce from can of chipotles in adobo

1 clove garlic, minced

Squeeze of fresh lime juice

Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Trim the ends of each squash; cut in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds with a spoon; cut the squash into half moons about 1/2-inch thick and transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Drizzle oil over top.

Mix salt, pepper, chili powder and cayenne pepper in a small bowl. Sprinkle spice mixture over the squash slices, then toss to make sure squash is evenly coated.

Roast in the oven, tossing around the squash on the baking sheet about half way through until the squash is tender and lightly browned, about 20 to 25 minutes.

While squash is roasting, make the sauce: Combine mayonnaise, chives, adobo sauce, garlic and lime juice in a small bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Transfer the roasted squash to a platter and serve with chipotle sauce.

Serves 4.

— Gretchen McKay

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