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Winter squash is fast and easy to microwave

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Winter squash is as easy to microwave as a potato. And every microwave cook knows how easy a potato micro-bakes!

Just rinse a squash, pierce it in a few spots with a fork, and

microwave it on High. Cooking time depends on the size, of course. A small squash to serve two cooks in about six minutes. Standing time of five to 10 minutes is necessary for complete tenderizing.

This time of year is the perfect time to try microwaving squash. The variety found at roadside stands and supermarket produce departments is endless. Any kind -- acorn, buttercup, butternut, hubbard and any of the newer kinds -- is microwaved the same way.

A medium squash (about 1 to two pounds) takes about eight to 12 minutes. Turn squash over once during cooking. When done, the skin will look glossy and most spots will feel soft. Then let squash stand 10 minutes or until easy to handle -- small undone spots will finish cooking during this time. Prepare it for eating, add seasonings, heat and serve.

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A seven- or eight-pound buttercup or hubbard squash microwaves in about 35 minutes. Turn it over and rotate it two or three times during cooking. Then leave it stand 15 to 20 minutes. This may seem like a long time and a lot of extra work, but it's still faster than oven baking, plus squash stays moist and flavorful.

For an even larger squash -- I'm saying ``huge'' -- microwave it five to 10 minutes to slightly soften it. Then cut it in wedges and remove the seeds. Cover cut edges or each wedge with plastic wrap. Microwave three or four wedges at a time until each wedge is done. Remove wedges when they are almost tender and let them stand in a covered dish until completely tender.

Many recipes call for cubes of uncooked squash, but you know how hard it is to peel and cut up winter squash. To make that job easier, microwave the whole squash a few minutes to slightly soften the outside.

Squash can be enhanced with a variety of herbs and spices. Try basil, rosemary, or thyme, or add a pinch of allspice, cumin or ginger. The classic seasonings are cinnamon or nutmeg, but have you ever tried pumpkin pie spice? Stir seasonings into cooked mashed squash or add them to pieces of partially cooked squash before final cooking.

Squash goes well with fruits -- classic is squash with apples. But squash with pineapple, pears, or canned peaches is also terrific. Add fruits to cooked squash, cover, and microwave until hot.

I've included recipes that show how to microwave various kinds of squash. Winter Squash With Sweet Red Peppers shows how to soften a squash to make it easier to peel and cut. The strips of squash and sweet red pepper then are cooked together quickly and evenly.

Old-Timer's Favorite Squash calls for butternut squash (the pear-shaped squash with pale-yellow skin). Butternut squash gets done faster in the larger seed-filled part. So when that part feels soft, cut it off. Cover the cut edge of the undone meatier part with plastic wrap and return it to the microwave to finish cooking. The seasonings in this recipe lean toward traditional favorites, calling for butter, brown sugar and spices.

Sweet-Sour Acorn Squash and Pineapple calls for dark-green acorn-shaped squash. The squash is cooked whole, allowed to stand until tender, and then halved and seeded. It's filled with fruit and a mild sweet-sour sauce and then microwaved a few minutes until hot. For ease, it can be prepared ahead and heated at the last minute. Winter Squash With Sweet Red Peppers

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1 small buttercup, butternut,

1 tablespoon chopped fresh

||or other winter squash

||basil leaves or teaspoon

||(about 2 pounds)

||dried basil leaves

1 small sweet red pepper, cut

2 tablespoons butter

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||in 2-inch-long thin strips

Salt and pepper

Pierce skin of whole squash in several spots. (If using a piece of large squash, cover cut surface with plastic wrap.) Microwave (High) 4 to 5 minutes or until squash feels slightly warm and still undone. Cut in half, remove seeds, and cut squash into 2-inch-long thin slices or strips. (There should be about 4 cups.)

Place squash in a microwavable 2-quart casserole. Stir in red pepper strips and basil. Top with butter. Cover with casserole lid or waxed paper. Microwave (High) 6 to 7 minutes, stirring once, or until squash is tender. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Each serving -- of recipe: 156 calories, 4g protein, 4g fat, 32g carbohydrate, 37mg sodium, 9mg cholesterol. Old-Timer's Favorite Squash

1 small butternut squash

teaspoon pumpkin pie spice

||(about 2 pounds)

2-4 tablespoons butter, cut in

4-6 tablespoons packed brown

||pieces

||sugar

Salt and pepper

Pierce squash with a sharp knife in several spots. Microwave (High) 6 to 7 minutes or until large part is almost tender and glossy-looking. Cut off the done part and put in a covered dish. Return remaining squash to microwave. Microwave (High) 4 to 6 minutes, turning squash over halfway through cooking, or until squash feels almost tender and skin looks glossy. Let stand 10 minutes or until cool enough to handle. Remove seeds, peel squash, and cut into cubes; place in a microwavable 2-quart casserole. Sprinkle with brown sugar and pumpkin pie spice; dot with butter. Cover with lid or waxed paper. Microwave (High) 3 to 5 minutes, stirring once, or until squash is hot. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Each serving -- of recipe: 181 calories, 4g protein, 4g fat, 39g carbohydrate, 39mg sodium, 9mg cholesterol. Sweet-Sour Acorn Squash and Pineapple

1 medium acorn squash (1-2

2 tablespoons packed brown

||pounds)

||sugar

1 can (8 ounces) pineapple

1 tablespoon cider vinegar

||chunks

teaspoon ground ginger

cup whole, well-drained

1 tablespoon butter, cut in 2

||maraschino cherries

||pieces

Pierce squash with a sharp knife in several spots. Place in microwave. Microwave (High) 8 to 11 minutes. When done, squash should feel tender in most spots and the skin look glossy. Let stand 10 minutes or until cool enough to handle. Meanwhile, stir together undrained pineapple, cherries, brown sugar, vinegar and ginger; set aside.

Cut squash in half and scoop out seeds. Place squash halves upright in a microwavable baking dish or in 2 individual 2-cup casseroles. With a spoon, loosen squash pulp from each shell. Divide fruit mixture evenly between each squash half and stir each gently to combine with squash. Top each with a piece of butter. Cover with waxed paper. Microwave (High) 3 to 4 minutes or until fruit and squash are hot. Makes 2 large servings.

Each serving: 240 calories, 5g protein, 7g fat, 55g carbohydrate, 74mg sodium, 18mg cholesterol. Questions for Joyce?

Do you have a question about microwave cooking? Send it to Microwave Minutes, % Extra Newspaper Features, P.O. Box 6118, Rochester, MN 55903. Please include a self-addressed, stamped, business-size envelope.

Recipes in this column are tested in 600- and 650-watt microwave ovens. With an oven of different wattage output, timings may need slight adjustment. Joyce Battcher is an independent home economist microwave specialist. She is author of ``Microwave Family Favorites'' and editor of ``A Batch of Ideas'' newsletter.

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