Native Cooking

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If I had to live on just one food for a time, it would probably be winter squash. It seems like such a generous, self-contained unit of goodness. Native people have been eating squash for more than 7,000 years. Together with corn and beans, these ''Three Sisters'' provide a complete diet of nutrition.

The combination of these three foods is like music: infinite possibilities. Unfortunately, not everyone likes squash. Maybe it's the name? It is comfort food to me, yet I feel guilty not having tasted every single variety. There are winter squash the size of walnuts, all the way to huge hubbards that vie for agricultural prizes in size. Pumpkins are also in that category for weight.

All these squash do have one thing in common: the beautiful intense color that indicates they are full of beta carotene. Aside from healthy fiber, they also contain high levels of vitamin C, which together with beta carotene has been shown to prevent heart disease, cancer and other conditions. Most winter squash has a hard skin, making it hard to cut; but if you put it in the oven for about 10 minutes at 375 degrees and take it out, it will be easier to deal with. The hard skin on squash is also its protection so you can store it for a long time - some up to three months - in a cool, well-ventilated place.

Try some of the more unusual varieties, too. There's golden nugget, delicata, calabaza, spaghetti, buttercup and sweet dumpling - all on my ''to do'' list. I love butternut and acorn so much, I don't experiment enough! Many squash and pumpkin make great containers for stuffing, drinks or even salads. In times past, a winter diet of dried corn, squash and beans, maybe a little pemmican, got the people through to warmer weather.

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Sweet Grated Squash

1 2- to 3-pound butternut or other winter squash

1 apple

4 tablespoons butter or substitute

1 tablespoons brown sugar

1/4 cup cream

1 dash cinnamon

Peel and cut squash and the apple into large pieces. Grate both, using the largest holes. Melt butter in a large saute pan and add squash and apple. Sprinkle with the brown sugar and a dash of cinnamon. Lower heat, cover and simmer for about 5 minutes. Remove cover, turn up the heat, add cream slowly and heat all for 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

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Spaghetti Squash with Sausage

1 medium spaghetti squash

3 sweet Italian sausages, cut in 1/2-inch slices

3 chorizo sausages, cut in 1/2-inch slices

1 16-oz. can tomato sauce

1 16-oz. can petite diced tomatoes

1 teaspoon each: dried oregano, basil and parsley

1 onion, chopped small

1 clove garlic, minced (or more)

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 cup water or broth

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut squash in half; place cut-side down on a baking sheet. Puncture a couple of holes with a fork so it won't explode in the oven. Cover loosely with foil and bake 1 hour. Remove from oven and take out any seeds or pith, then use a fork to ''rake'' the spaghetti strands of squash. Set aside and keep warm.

Brown the sausage in a large saute pan; drain and set aside. Put the water or broth in the same pan you browned the sausage in and add the tomato ingredients, onion, herbs, garlic and sugar. Simmer for 30 - 35 minutes. Add the sausage back to the pan and simmer another 30 minutes. To serve, pour over spaghetti squash and garnish with any grated cheese.

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Moist Corn and Squash Cake

1-1/2 cups pureed winter squash (butternut, acorn, pumpkin)

3 eggs

1/2 cup sugar or substitute

1 tablespoon finely grated orange peel

Juice of 1 orange

1-1/2 cups fine corn flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon orange extract

1/2 cup confectioners' sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Beat together the squash, eggs and sugar with a mixer. Add orange peel, extract and juice, then the flour and baking powder. Beat well and pour into a glass 8x8 baking dish. (If using a metal cake pan, increase heat to 375 degrees.) Bake for 30 minutes. When cool, sprinkle with confectioners' sugar.

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Notes and Tips

* Winter squash are a versatile vegetable. They go with any potato or other root crop nicely. They like wild or brown rice, and they can be sweetened with honey, brown sugar or maple syrup. Stuffing them or matching them with any red meat is not a problem. They also like any white meat, such as chicken or turkey.

* Cinnamon and/or nutmeg are excellent spice companions. Nuts and raisins are also good in any stuffed squash, along with cranberries.

* Not only are squash, corn and beans good for you as perfect nutritional food; they are all among the most economical.