Hard-shell winter squashes look beautiful in their huge stacks at the farm stand. The colors are remarkable, too. You see gourds in sea foam blue, buttercup, and persimmon. Giant white or pale blue orbs look like Cinderella might step out of one. They have striped, speckled, and smooth surfaces. Place several in a row on your dining table and you have a stunning centerpiece.
In the kitchen, spaghetti squash is kind of magical the way the cooked strands pull away from the shell and turn into something that looks like long pasta. Bake and puree your own pumpkin for a pie and you finally understand how this Plain Jane of the pie family can be ethereal. Acorn halves make wonderful vessels to hold a rice or meat stuffing so an entire meal is cooked and presented in a single bundle. Gigantic Hubbard bakes into a meaty mash, while butternut puree, welcome at both the high chair and the Thanksgiving buffet, might be the most well-known of all the varieties.
And then there is delicata, perhaps the best-tasting squash in the field. It’s a stubby yellow pickle-shaped cylinder with green stripes, sometimes it’s rounder, almost oval. When you cook delicata, the skin is entirely edible, hence the name, and the creamy, pale-orange flesh has a sweet potato quality (it’s also called sweet potato squash and peanut squash). Slice it thinly into long spears, roast them in a blazing oven until the ends caramelize and turn even sweeter and a little crunchy, and you have delicata fries, one of the gems of the fall table.
Delicata has seeds in the middle, as all winter squashes do, and when the gourds are very fresh, as they are at farm stands and farmers’ markets right now, the skin is quite hard.
Many cooks halve delicata lengthwise, take out the seeds with a spoon, and cut the halves thinly to make half-moons before roasting. Making ring shapes is a little trickier. You have to trim both ends, then dig out the seeds from each side before slicing.
Longer spears make delicata look almost elegant. After cutting lengthwise, and scooping out the seeds, keep cutting the squash lengthwise into ½-inch-thick spears. If you‘re nervous about making that initial long cut into a hard squash, first cut it horizontally so you’re dealing with two smaller pieces and then shorter spears.
Toss them with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. That’s really all you need — but some crushed red pepper or cayenne adds a nice touch, or a little Parmesan. A blended spice, such as aromatic Middle Eastern baharat (a mix of warm spices such as coriander, cumin, and cardamom) can also go on top before roasting.
Set the spears flesh-side up on a parchment-lined baking sheet and let them roast for a long time in a very hot oven. Forty minutes at 450-degrees will singe and blacken the pointy ends a little and add a nice sticky sweetness (watch them near the end of roasting because ovens have hot spots and you may not know where yours is). Serve them plain or dipped into a minty yogurt sauce or a spicy mayo.
Because delicata’s skin is entirely edible and keeps its shape in the oven, it’s the only squash that can masquerade as fries. And yes, you can stuff it, or chop it for a roasted vegetable tray, or layer it in a taco.
But delicata begs to be left alone. Make fries and forget about all the other embellishments.
Sheryl Julian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.