If you were to teach a cooking seminar to nearly 40 middle school girls and boys, what would you make?
As you ponder that question, I will mention that Janice Estabrook has her work cut out for her. As Coordinator of Gifted and Enrichment Services for the Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit (for out-of-staters, Pennsylvania has “intermediate units,” which are educational service agencies assigned to various regions of the state), she is tasked with organizing over 50 seminars annually for elementary, middle and high school students across the two counties.
The goal of the seminar program is to offer unique ways for students to learn outside their classrooms. To achieve this, Janice partners with local professionals who work in a vast array of fields in an effort to create meaningful, hands-on experiences for the students.
When Janice first reached out to me last year, she mentioned that she’d received many requests for a cooking seminar over the years but had yet to work out the details. There were, no doubt, logistical issues involved in finding a location where three dozen-plus students from schools far and wide could meet to cook and eat lunch.
A big hurdle was crossed when Kegel’s Produce generously offered their commercial kitchen space and all the produce a group of hungry students could eat. I thought long and hard about recipes that would allow the students to play an active role in the preparation and at the same time push the boundaries on what they might typically choose to eat. That said, I wanted them to like it. The last thing I wanted to see was lots of donated produce in the trash can!
With flesh that resembles long, skinny noodles, spaghetti squash seemed like a worthy seasonal centerpiece for our meal. To make this curious vegetable even more kid-friendly, I thought of a meal I’ve made many times for my sons and nieces—pizza boats. Mixing familiar flavors with “questionable” vegetables has the potential to make those veggies far more palatable, and maybe even a big hit.
Though loaded with kid appeal, healthy spaghetti squash offers lots of benefits to the adult crowd, too. As part of the winter squash family, spaghetti squash is loaded with nutrients and low in calories and carbs. It offers a satisfying fresh veggie option throughout the cold winter months and will keep for months when stored in a cool, dry place—it does not need to be refrigerated.
The easy pizza-themed recipe relies on just a few additional pantry ingredients and, like your favorite pizza, can be topped according to personal preference. Smaller squash are ideal for this recipe as the shells serve as makeshift bowls.
Scraping a fork across the roasted squash to magically produce “spaghetti” was a fun start. From there, the students mixed in cheese and pizza sauce (we prepared an easy recipe, but store-bought works well, too), then added toppings like pepperoni, bell peppers, and more cheese.
Before everyone sat down to lunch, we whipped up Fall Slaw for another produce-centered side dish. To my delight, the initial feedback was terrific. Most of the students scraped their squash bowls clean and many came back for seconds on the slaw, which eventually ran out. There was very little waste and, ultimately, only two students disliked the meal. Given the size of the group, this truly exceeded my expectations.
Throughout our time together, this group of middle schoolers asked thoughtful questions, shared recipes brought from home, and were fully engaged and attentive. In addition to cooking, we toured the Kegel’s facility, worked on several writing exercises, and discussed aspects of my job ranging from photography and writing to recipe development and social media.
If you live in South Central PA, have a special skill or unique job, and would like to share it with a group of students, Janice would love to hear from you. To get in touch or for more information, visit the www.iu13.org . The noodle-like strands are kid-friendly and create a hard-to-resist invitation to engage children in the cooking process. Scraping a fork across the roasted squash to magically produce “spaghetti” is really fun for kids–and kids at heart. (See recipe below for the easy instructions and tips.)
Spaghetti Squash 101:
- The outer shells are hard and can be difficult to cut. For less resistance, microwave the whole squash for about three minutes before cutting.
- Most recipe instructions for cooking spaghetti squash call for roasting with cut sides facing down. I have tried cooking with the cut sides facing up and there was no difference in taste or cook time. However, with this method the moisture that cooks out of the squash occasionally pools inside the squash. This is best poured off to prevent it from diluting any sauces that are added.
- Similarly, I prefer roasting to microwaving as roasting enhances the nutty flavor and cooks off more of the moisture. However, whole squash can be cooked completely in the microwave. Just be certain to pierce deep holes in the squash to prevent pent up steam from creating an unwanted squash explosion.
- Because squash size varies dramatically, cooking time is not precise. The squash is done when a fork can easily pierce through the skin and flesh, and the flesh can be scraped into spaghetti-like strands.
- When using the shell as a ready-made bowl, cut a thin slice from the bottom if needed to form a sturdier base.
- I have heard that large squash are naturally sweeter than smaller squash, although I frequently purchase the smaller squash and would be hard-pressed to tell the difference. Smaller shells do work better as bowls or “boats” for serving. While larger shells can serve as a serving dish, it’s often easier to transfer the ingredients to a casserole dish or several smaller bowls.
- Cutting the spaghetti squash in half width-wise (meaning the smaller of the equator options as opposed to the method pictured) will result in longer strands. This method of cutting doesn’t work as well if you wish to eat out of the shell but can be a fun experiment when cooking with kids.
- One cup of spaghetti squash has just 31 calories, 0.6 grams of fat, and 7 grams of carbs and is a good source of potassium, fiber, and Vitamins A, C and B6.
Yield: 2 servings (double or triple the recipe as needed)
- 1 small-medium sized spaghetti squash (about 1-3/4 to 2 pounds)
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- 1 cup pizza sauce*
- 1 cup shredded mozzarella or Italian blend cheese*
- Optional toppings: pepperoni, black olives, ham, cooked sausage, peppers, sautéed mushrooms, crushed red pepper flakes, etc.
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F, and lightly grease a baking sheet or line it with foil for easy cleanup. Using a sharp knife, very carefully cut the spaghetti squash in half lengthwise to form two equal size “boats”. (I find it helpful to microwave the squash for about 3 minutes before cutting to soften it. Pierce it once along the line where you will cut it later so the steam can escape.) Scrape out the seeds with a spoon, and place cut-side up on the prepared baking sheet. Mist or brush with olive oil (I usually drizzle a teaspoon of oil around the edges and inside each half, and then rub it all around with my fingers). Season the flesh well with salt and pepper. Flip the squash and bake cut-side down for 25-35 minutes or until the squash meets little resistance when pierced with a knife and the flesh easily pulls away from the shell. (Exact time will depend on oven, size of squash, and if you microwaved to soften.) Using a fork, shred the inside of the squash until the flesh is spaghetti-like, leaving about 1/4-inch of the squash in tact around the border so the shell doesn't collapse.
- Add approximately 1/2 cup of the pizza sauce and 1/4 cup of shredded cheese to both squash halves. (If using sautéed mushrooms or cooked sausage as toppings, I like to stir some of them in with the squash, too.) Toss to evenly coat the squash with the sauce. Top each half with 1/4 cup additional cheese and a few pepperoni slices or toppings of choice.
- Turn the oven to broil, and with a rack about 1/3 from the top of the oven, broil for 2-3 minutes, watching very carefully so they don’t burn, or until the cheese is completely melted.
- *The amount of sauce and cheese need not be an exact science. This is about what I use, but the precise amount depends on the size of squash and personal preference.
- Prep-ahead tip: Spaghetti squash may be baked in advance. Either allow the cooked halves to sit on the counter for up to 2 hours or cool, cover, and refrigerate for a day or two. In this case, bake the assembled boats at 350 degrees F for 15-20 minutes (instead of broiling) or until hot throughout.
I’ve talked to many adults who never tried spaghetti squash but were eventually wooed by its low carb appeal. My unscientific research revealed that most were surprised by how much they enjoyed it, even though it’s not a carbon copy of traditional pasta.
You may absolutely make your own pizza sauce, but a store-bought jar can certainly be used. When using ready-made, a higher-quality sauce will produce the best results. You might even find a good locally made option.
For an economical sauce option that relies on pantry staples, try this Easy Pizza Sauce. It can be made in minutes and used for much more than pizza!