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Looks like noodles, but it's really squash

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It's magical, really. As the family gathers around to observe, your sharp knife skillfully passes through pale yellow skin of a cylindrical fruit that has been cooked to tenderness. Curiosity mounts as you prod the halves apart. With a fork, you gently scrape the seeds away from the steaming hot flesh. And then, with the same fork, you amaze your audience as you pull out noodles.

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Well, they look like noodles. And that's why the steaming food before you is called spaghetti squash.

Although some would say spaghetti squash is a substitute for pasta, that is a bit misleading. Spaghetti squash does not taste at all like the pasta noodle. Spaghetti squash is slightly sweet and pleasantly nutty. Its subtle flavor makes it very compatible with a variety of foods.

I cooked spaghetti squash for the first time more than 20 years ago. I put the whole squash in a big pot of water and let it boil for about half an hour. When I could easily poke a fork through the skin into the flesh, I knew it was ready to eat. My family was impressed with this unusual new spaghetti look-alike on the table that I had tossed with melted butter and sprinkled with some salt and pepper.

Through trial and error, I finally discovered my favorite and most fool-proof method to cook spaghetti squash is to bake it. First, I use a fork to poke several holes in the clean squash. Then I place it on a foil-lined baking sheet. After about an hour in the oven, the squash will yield to slight pressure, my signal that it's ready to come out of the heat. The strands of flesh inside the squash are cooked crisp-tender and easily shred away from the skin into thin filaments of goodness. It works for me every time.

Like some of the other varieties of winter squash, spaghetti squash can often be found in supermarkets year 'round, but, as the name indicates, winter squash are most abundant from September through December.

When shopping for spaghetti squash, choose one that is hard and heavy for its size, with a pale, even color. Avoid those that have soft spots.

When my friend, Helen, gave me some spaghetti squash from a large garden she and her husband have in the Valley City, N.D., area, I immediately began thinking of ways to serve the tender, golden strands of cooked squash.

The first batch of spaghetti-like strands were simply adorned with a bit of butter (olive oil is good, too), salt, pepper and grated Parmesan and served with succulent roasted chicken. I layered the second batch of thin, crisp-tender filaments in a baking dish with make-ahead Italian herb-seasoned tomato sauce, creating Baked Spaghetti Squash Italiano. The tomato sauce can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days or in the freezer for up to a month. I baked the squash on a Sunday afternoon, pulled out the strands of flesh and stored it in the refrigerator until the next day when I put the dish together and baked it for our evening meal.

Spaghetti squash won't fool anyone. It's definitely not pasta. But when you incorporate spaghetti squash into meals, you will be serving up a good amount of vitamin A, boosting the immune system and helping to maintain eye health. Spaghetti squash contains few calories, but significant amounts of nutrients, fiber and vitamin C.

And it makes you a magician in the kitchen.

Baked Spaghetti Squash Italiano

1 pound ground pork

1 medium onion, chopped

1 medium green pepper, chopped

2 chubby cloves garlic, minced

2 (15-ounce) cans tomato sauce

1 (15-ounce) can petite diced tomatoes

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

3 tablespoons dried Italian seasoning blend

1 (3- to 4-pound) spaghetti squash

1 cup (4 ounces) shredded Cheddar cheese

1 cup (4 ounces) shredded Monterey Jack cheese

In a large skillet over medium heat, brown ground pork. As it cooks, stir the meat so that it crumbles. With a slotted spoon, transfer browned ground pork to a paper towel-lined plate. Set aside.

Save enough of the drippings in the pan to equal about 2 tablespoons. If there is not enough of the drippings, add a little olive oil. Sauté chopped onion and green pepper in reserved drippings until tender. Add garlic and sauté for another minute. Stir in pork, tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, black pepper and Italian seasoning. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cool slightly at room temperature.

At this point, sauce can be refrigerated in a tightly covered container for up to 3 days. It also can be put into the freezer in an airtight container and stored for up to a month.

On the day you will be serving the dish, thaw sauce in the refrigerator, if frozen. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Wash squash and place in a foil-lined shallow baking dish. Pierce through skin of squash with a fork several times. Bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 1 hour or until squash yields to pressure. Let cool slightly so that it is easier to handle.

Cut squash in half lengthwise. Remove and discard seeds. Using a fork, gently scrape out spaghetti-like strands of flesh from squash. Place half of squash in bottom of a lightly oiled 13- x 9- x 2-inch baking dish. Pour half of sauce over squash. Repeat layers. Cover dish with aluminum foil and bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 20 minutes. Remove foil and spread cheese evenly over top. Return to oven, uncovered, and bake for 10 to 15 minutes, or until bubbly. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Tips from the cook

--For a meatless version, replace the ground pork with 1 or 2 cups of cooked lentils to provide protein and fiber.

--Give dried herbs a pinch as you add them to the pot to release their oils.

--Since I am usually cooking for two, I used the squash and sauce to create two smaller casseroles rather than one 13- x 9- x 2-inch size.

--I look for Italian seasoning blend that has no salt in the mixture. The blend I use contains dried basil, garlic, parsley, oregano and crushed red pepper. Use any of your favorite dried Italian herbs to replace the 3 tablespoons of Italian seasoning blend.

--Use your favorite cheese to top Baked Spaghetti Squash Italiano.

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