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It's a pasta impostor: Spaghetti squash takes the spotlight in soup

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Hard-skinned winter squash is at its best right now. I enjoy browsing through the farmers markets and picking my way through bins at the grocery stores, admiring the unique shapes and various colors. The hard, thick-skinned squash is a nice change from the summer squash I've enjoyed the last couple of months.

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Cool evenings get me geared up for butternut squash soup. Kabocha and sweet dumplings are a couple of my favorite winter squash to bake and eat like mashed sweet potatoes. The one I have most fun with, though, is the versatile spaghetti squash.

Spaghetti squash is a cylindrical fruit with pale yellow skin. When cooked, its slightly deeper yellow, mild-flavored flesh can be raked out with a fork and fluffed into pleasantly crunchy spaghetti-like strands. It offers little flavor on its own, but is excellent when topped with sauces. Fresh garlic sautéed in butter, tossed with cooked spaghetti squash and sprinkled with freshly grated Parmesan cheese and lots of black pepper has always been my favorite way to serve the pasta look-alike. It's a step up from the buttered noodles my best childhood friend and I used to slurp up when we lunched together.

Until a few weeks ago, the thought of stirring cooked spaghetti squash into soup had never occurred to me. On potluck dinner night during my recent camping excursion, I ladled hot soup from a large pot over some wild rice. It was dark as our group huddled around the campfire to eat. I wasn't sure what I was spooning into my mouth, but it was full of satisfying flavor.

I tracked down the young woman who prepared the soup. She was able to give me a list of the ingredients she used. I was surprised to learn the warming mixture included spaghetti squash. I went home and prepared my own version of the tasty soup.

When shopping for spaghetti squash, choose one that is firm and has the darkest yellow skin. Be sure there are no soft, mushy spots on the squash.

Spaghetti squash can be cooked in the microwave, baked in the oven, boiled in a pot or steamed on the stove. I prefer to wash the outside of the squash and put it on a foil-lined baking sheet. After about an hour of baking in a 375-degree oven, the skin will give a little when you put pressure on it with your finger and the tip of a sharp knife will easily slide through the skin into the tender flesh.

Spaghetti squash does take longer to cook than pasta, but once it is cooked, the flesh can be stored in the refrigerator for a couple of days.

It's hard to handle the hot squash immediately after removing it from the oven. Be careful of escaping steam as you cut off both ends and slice it lengthwise through the middle. Use a spoon to scrape out the seeds. A fork works well for scraping the noodle-like tendrils of squash from the skin.

Southwestern-Style Spaghetti Squash Soup is a healthful mix of vegetables and beans, seasoned with smoky ground cumin to add zing.

When you bake the spaghetti squash a day or two ahead, Southwestern-Style Spaghetti Squash Soup becomes a 30-minute meal.

Life with spaghetti can be creative, low-carb and healthful when it comes from a squash.

Southwestern-Style Spaghetti Squash Soup

1 (3-pound) spaghetti squash

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

1 green bell pepper, chopped

2 chubby cloves garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1 pound fresh tomatoes, pureed

4 cups low-sodium vegetable or chicken broth

1 (4.5-ounce) can chopped green chiles

1 (15-ounce) can black beans, rinsed, drained

Chopped cilantro, grated Cheddar cheese and sour cream for serving

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Rinse and dry spaghetti squash. Place squash on aluminum foil-lined baking sheet. Bake in preheated 375-degree oven for about 1 hour. Turn the squash every once in awhile to promote even cooking on the inside. If you don't remember to do that, the squash will turn out just fine. The squash is done baking when it gives a little when you press it with a finger and a sharp knife easily slides into the squash. Remove from oven and set aside to cool slightly. When squash is cool enough to handle, use a sharp chef's knife to cut off both ends. Cut lengthwise through the squash and open it up. Use a spoon to scrape out seeds from each half. With a fork, scrape the strands of squash out and put on a plate. Set aside. When spaghetti squash has cooled, it can be covered and refrigerated for a couple of days.

Heat olive oil in large soup pot. Sauté onion and green pepper until tender. Add garlic and continue to sauté for 2 more minutes. Stir in ground cumin, pureed tomatoes, broth, chopped green chiles and black beans. Cover pot and allow soup to simmer for 20 minutes. Stir in spaghetti squash. As soon as squash is heated through, serve soup. Offer cilantro, grated cheese and sour cream at the table. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Tips from the cook

--Use more ground cumin, according to your heat tolerance.

--No need to peel fresh tomatoes before putting them into the blender. Just remove the core, cut tomatoes into chunks and puree.

--One (28-ounce) can of whole tomatoes can be pureed and added to soup when fresh tomatoes are not available.

--Preparing soup is much like creating a tossed salad. Add vegetables and seasonings to call it your own.

--Southwestern Spaghetti Squash Soup can be cooled, ladled into containers with tight-fitting lids and stored in the freezer for a couple of months.

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