Today’s post can be heard on the public radio show Crop to Cuisine, hosted by Dov Hirsch.
As a child I grew up eating frozen, pureed, orange squash that came in a box and tasted vaguely of plastic. Served in a gelatinous slump on my plate, I spent years believing that squash was one food best left in the fields.
But then my father started a garden, a large plot my mother, sister and I tended together. This is when we discovered acorn squash, which my mother baked with a bit of maple syrup and cream drizzled into the hollow left from the seeds. One bite of the savory treat, and I was in love.
The sweet, flaky goodness of winter squash is a hallmark of fall for me, and each year I wait until the time that squash is in season to indulge in its delight. I wouldn’t dream of buying and eating it out of season, because to me, the passion for food stems from anticipation as much as preparation.
If you’re looking to warm your evenings with savory soup or want a side dish with a little pizzazz, check out the ingredient that makes fall meals special: winter squash.
Rich, flakey, light, or nutty, these colorful cousins of the thin-skinned zucchini come in a variety of shapes and sizes perfect for feeding a couple or a crowd. As the days get chilly and shorter, squirrel a few into your pantry to store for winter dishes.
Delicatas, hubbards, buttercups, and acorn squash all grow well here, along with pie pumpkins and a few of the butternuts. I like them cut in half and roasted, but use them in other recipes and you’ll realize they’re pretty good cooked many ways.
Spaghetti squash is perfect for those who love pasta, with long, stringy, mild tasting fibers. Slathered with sauce or outstanding in pesto, the vines are so prolific you only need plant a few. Cooking it is simple – pop it in the microwave until it’s soft and collapses, then carefully cut it open, remove the seeds and scrape out the squash.
There is one note of caution to cooking spaghetti squash this way: pierce it thoroughly with a knife before microwaving. It explodes if you don’t, blowing the microwave door open and spewing squash across the room. Trust me, that’s not as much fun as it sounds.
Hubbards always draw my attention. I’ve always wanted to taste them, but their mammoth size – up to 25 pounds – make them look more like a drilling project than a simple meal. When I finally got the nerve up to ask an old timer how he cracked the gargantuan gourd open, he smiled and said “the wife tosses it off the garage roof.”
Images of that kind, petite lady climbing a rickety ladder with what amounts to a small hippo in tow flashed through my mind, and I prepared to give that gardener a good tongue lashing on safety in cooking. But one glance at his laughing eyes had me realizing I was being ribbed, and she didn’t really do that.
But the question persists: how do you open hubbard? With an extra tough skin and roly-poly shape, a knife is out of the question. Fortunately Alton Brown, host of Good Eats, has the best approach: tapping a cleaver through the squash with a wooden mallet. This works well on all winter squash.
Smaller, thick-skinned pumpkins are ideal for using in pies or baked goods. Often called sugar pumpkins, they have a very rich, sweet flavor. Use them immediately – while other winter squashes taste better as they age, the pie pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo) loses its flavor if stored.
Before choosing pumpkins to grow in your patch, try a few this fall: Black Futsu, a type from Japan, is a funky-looking flattened, warty, deep green pumpkin. Its looks are deceiving; the flesh is golden with the savory taste of hazelnuts. And Jahrradale, an Australian grey pumpkin, is very tasty. The nutty, sweet but not strong flesh is easy to clean and nearly stringless, making baking a snap.
Harvest your winter squash when the skin toughens and isn’t dented by pressure from a fingernail. But before this happens the skin is tender, so avoid wounding your fruit with a clumsy nail slash by watching for other signs of maturity, such as the stem drying out or the rind turning a deep color (some exceptions apply).