BY DEBORAH MADISON
PHOTOGRAPHY BY CRYSTAL BIRNS AND LAURIE SMITH
ILLUSTRATIONS BY NIKA CASSARO
Winter squash and pumpkins are among the prettiest mainstays of our fall and winter kitchen. It’s not so many years ago that few people knew much more than the acorn squash, jack o’ lanterns and chunks of banana squash. But new varieties have been filling our market bins, offering us a much wider choice when it comes to size, flavor, shape, texture and taste. There are hundreds of named members of the Cucurbita family, which includes not only squash and pumpkins, but also summer squash and gourds. Amy Goldman has written the definitive book on the topic called the Compleat Squash: A Passionate Grower’s Guide to Pumpkins, Squashes, and Gourds. It is lavish with illustration and wisdom both and a must read for anyone interested in knowing more about this splendid and varied family.
As I write, local tomatoes, peppers and eggplants are still in their peak season, but with shorter days our tastes may be ready to turn towards these stalwart citizens of the vegetable world. Because of their hard skins we tend to think that winter squash will last forever, but they don’t. I find that by February they’re starting to dry up inside and any bruises incurred earlier are beginning to spread. So go ahead and start enjoying them now.
With the exception of pumpkins grown specifically for eating, squash generally makes a better vegetable than a pumpkin—richer, sweeter, and smoother.
Acorn: This is one winter squash most Americans know—acorn shaped with smooth skin that’s dark green, orange or a splashy mixture of the two. The flesh is paler than most and the flavor can be bland, which may be one reason it’s often sweetened. I have to admit it is not my favorite, although I am told that some new varieties are really quite good. Amy Goldman singles out elma Sanders (also known as elma Sanders Sweet Potato), saying that it’s the sweetest of the acorn group, and tastes somewhat like chestnut.
Sibley: A member of the banana squash group, one used to find these large oblong behemoths cut into slabs and wrapped in plastic at the supermarket. Whole, they’re much too huge for most people to store, cook or even carry. But once cut, it’s an easy squash to work with. Sibley is a striking heirloom with grey-green skin and pale orange flesh; it is considered the best of the banana group.
Butternut: This buff-skinned squash has a long, straight, solid neck and a round bottom that contains the seeds. Not only does it have exceptionally good flavor, butternut squash is also easy to peel, which makes it ideal for gratins and other dishes. Use the neck in a gratin, then steam the bottom separately—whole or quartered—and enjoy it as warm vegetable side dish. An excellent all-purpose winter squash, because it’s so good, it often replaces others, especially heirlooms that are harder to grow and costlier, which is unfortunate. I advise that you force yourself, if need be, to try some less familiar specimens should you come across inexpensive ones.
Violina di Rugosa: This is an Italian heirloom variety in the butternut group that looks like a gigantic Mr. Peanut but tastes unbelievably good. It is rich, sweet, and smooth-fleshed. Not many people grow it, so if you see one, don’t hesitate to give it a try.
Buttercup: Different varieties—including Perfection, Honey Delight, Black Forest, Red Kuri and the Japanese Kabocha—are squat and round and usually dark green except for the Kuri, which is red-orange with slightly dry but flavorful, smooth flesh. All of these varieties have dense flesh, which is so extraordinarily sweet, you’ll be asked if you added sugar to your soups. Although the shape suggests fillings of broth and cream, these squash are not particularly good for that purpose since the flesh readily drinks up all liquids. Using them in soup is usually a better option.
Spaghetti Squash: Oval, yellow skinned with pale yellow flesh, this squash is so coarse that it’s cooked flesh can be pulled into long strands resembling spaghetti. It’s somewhat bland, but good treated just as spaghetti, with sauces. Chilled cooked squash can be tossed with vinaigrette and served as a winter salad. Be sure to puncture it before baking whole to avoid messy explosions in your oven.
Hubbards: Orange, blue skinned, or slate colored, large, ungainly and sometimes covered with warts, this old-fashioned squash is nonetheless one of the best for eating. Fortunately new varieties, such as Queensland Blue, are small enough for the home cook to handle. Good texture and flavor.
Galeuse d’Eysines: I was drawn to grow this variety because it’s one of those odd-looking cucurbits that is round,plump, and covered with crusty peanut-like bits. It was thrilling when it actually looked like its picture! Not so good to steam (it becomes watery) but delicious roasted or sliced and fried in olive oil or butter.
Mini-Squash and Pumpkins: Tiny varieties like Sweet Dumpling, Jack Be Little and others can be stuffed, baked or steamed. One squash is perfect for one person, especially a child who will love having his or her own baby pumpkin. They’re cute, convenient and quite good to eat, too.
Delicata: Cream colored with green stripes, oblong and slender or short and stubby, these small one-pound (or smaller) squash have excellent flavor. Their size makes them good shallow containers, and although their skins are easy to peel, they can also be cooked with the skins on. This squash is closely related to zucchini and other summer squash that we do eat with the skins on. So try leaving the skins on; they will soften and are quite edible.
Turban Squash: With their high striped “hats” these look very exotic, but are not nearly as pleasant to eat as to look at. Better for decorations and doorstops.
Marina di Chioggia: is is one of my favorite heirlooms. It’s warty, covered with blue-green bubbles and oh so good. This is the squash to use for pumpkin ravioli, but it’s also a delicious, silky-textured vegetable to use in a soup, risotto, purée, etc.
Regardless of the variety, squash and pumpkins should be firm and hefty for their size. The heavier they are, the denser and more moist the flesh.There may be rough patches on the skins, but the only real problem is soft, spongy spots; avoid them if you can, or cut them out if you can’t.
How to Store: Cut squash should be wrapped and refrigerated up to a few days, but keep whole squash in a cool, dry place that has plenty of ventilation—a back porch would be ideal. If you like to keep them out where they can be seen, try to use them before they dry out. You can tell when that happens because they become increasingly light.
How to Use: Winter squash are easy to bake, roast or steam. They can be made into purées and soups and used in pies, breads and cakes. Slices and chunks can be fried, sautéed or baked in gratins and simmered in stews. The skins and seeds are effective in soup stocks, even if they’ve been roasted first.
Special Handling: Cutting large squash can be difficult. A heavy knife or cleaver and a rubber mallet are useful tools. Whack the knife into the squash, then bear down or tap it with the mallet to open the squash. Cut next to the stem rather than through it—it’ll be easier on your knife. Or bake a recalcitrant vegetable whole in the oven until it begins to soften, then cut it into smaller pieces. Some nonchalant cooks I know drop large squash on the floor to break them open—advisable only when all else fails. And it’s a good idea to put it in a bag first.
Yield: Allowing for the seeds and skins, a one-pound squash, halved and baked, is adequate for two servings, and one pound of peeled, seeded squash yields approximately two cups puréed. Whole weights and trimmed weights vary from one squash variety to another, so it’s difficult to give absolute quantities. However, those who love squash will wish for large portions, and leftover cooked squash is always easy to reheat or use in other dishes.
UC Santa Cruz graduate Deborah Madison is the founding chef of Greens restaurant in San Francisco and the author of 14 cookbooks, including Local Flavors, Vegetable Literacy and The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, as well as innumerable articles on food, cooking, farms and gardens. In My Kitchen, her most recent book and admittedly one of her favorites, contains a lot of narrative backstory to old and new favorite recipes and is filled with gorgeous photographs. A Master Gardener, Deborah lives in the village of Galisteo, New Mexico, with her husband, artist Patrick McFarlin, where she writes and attempts to grow her own food and flowers. Aside from attending UC Santa Cruz, her connections to the Monterey Bay area include serving as tenzo, or head cook, at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in Carmel Valley in the 1970s.