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HOME ON THE RANGE: Don't skip this squash casserole

A good casserole is like a symphony.

Wait, let me start again. A good casserole is like a jug band. The components work together in an easy, down-home way that makes you feel like slapping your knee and humming, even if you can’t carry a tune. These are simple stews, one dish wonders, the result of throwing a bunch of stuff into a pan and letting the oven do the work. Somehow, by the time the bubbly amalgamation is pulled from the coals, it’s tastier than the sum of its parts.

Over the years, I’ve witnessed a string of remarkable casserole recipes featuring creative uses for canned fried onions, kidney beans and tater tots. My mother makes this pork dish she calls “One Pot Pork Chop Supper.” You brown 4 pork chops and toss them into a baking dish. You add one can of tomato soup, 1/2-cup of water, 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce, a little salt and oregano, and handfuls of cut-up potatoes and carrots. Then, you cover the pot and bake it at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. It’s fantastic!

Delano and I were up in Vancouver a few months back, observing the international fireworks competition (Spain should have won). After enduring countless drag races and drunk teenagers — one fell flat on her face without so much as putting a hand up to soften the blow — we headed off to spend the night with Delano’s grandma Phyllis. Early the following morning, she handed me a recipe for “Chunky Chicken Stew.” She smiled and said, “Hurry up and make it, so you can put it in your column.” I laughed, thinking she was joking, but right away realized she wasn’t. In order to maintain a little dignity, I told her I’d wait until fall when squash, one of the dish’s main ingredients, was in season. She responded with a wave, “Squash is always in season.”

Now that squash is, in fact, showing up in farmers’ fields and arriving en masse at the grocery store, I figured it was time to sample Phyllis’s dish. It was, as promised, quite tasty. Sweet and hearty, with a nice, thick texture. Delano doesn’t like squash (or chicken or corn, which he calls “pig food”), but he gobbled the casserole up like a, well, just like a pig!

The first thing you need to know when setting out to prepare this stew is how to tell one squash from another. Because, while the recipe calls for butternut squash, I accidentally purchased acorn. My personal feeling is that most winter squash taste about the same, so I don’t think the switcheroo made much difference in the casserole’s flavor. It did, however, make an enormous difference with regards to preparation. Acorn squash possess a thick, green skin, wrapped tightly around severe ridges. It’s very difficult to peel. I sliced off thick planks and lost a lot of flesh. Almost lost a finger.

To ensure that you don’t make the same mistake, here’s a quick guide to squash. (Most of these varieties are delicious when sliced in half and baked face down or diced and steamed.)

Acorn: The size of a small melon. Has deep green skin, usually with orange streaks. When cooked, the innards are moist, rich and tender.

Buttercup: Shaped like a drum topped with a tiny derby. The skin is dark green, usually striped with gray. The flesh is sweet.

Butternut: Looks like a huge pear with buttery tan skin. The inside is moist and sweet.

Golden nugget: Resembles a miniature pumpkin. It tastes like pumpkin, too.

Hubbard: Gigantic. Often sold by the chunk. Its flesh is drier and stringier than other winter squash.

Pumpkin: I think I can let this one pass.

Spaghetti: Shaped like a small watermelon with yellow skin. Bake or steam it whole (pierce it with a knife, so it doesn’t explode) and the flesh comes out in strands. Good with Alfredo sauce.

Turban: Small to medium-sized in weird shapes and colors, often with bumpy skin. These are usually ornamental.

Chunky chicken stew

2 pounds skinned, boned chicken

1/2-cup finely chopped onion

1 can cream of (whatever) soup

2 pounds butternut squash — pealed and cut into 3/4-inch chunks

1 cup chopped celery

1 cup chopped red pepper

1 can whole kernel corn, drained

1/2-teaspoon dried thyme

First, brown the chicken and onions in a frying pan. Then, place the concoction in a roasting pan with a lid. Add the rest of the ingredients. Stir. Cover and bake at 375 degrees for 40 minutes. Easy, eh?

This dish is best served over rice; here’s a foolproof method.

Place 2 cups of water and a little salt in a small pan with a tight-fitting lid. When the water reaches a rapid boil, add one cup of rice. Cover the pan and reduce the heat to simmer or very low. Cook for 20 minutes, undisturbed.

Recipes and suggestions can be sent to vogel@whidbey.net

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