by Maria Reidelbach
As we slide into colder, darker days of the year, I have a favorite way to keep the warm hues of autumn in my life. The rich colors of winter squash, in all their varied forms, mimic the peak days of a Hudson Valley autumn, from vivid golds and blazing oranges to deepest forest green. Gazing on these vibrant shades and literally consuming them can balance the grayest of days and encourage daydreams of basking in the fall sunshine.
Squash is a huge botanical family called cucurbits; it includes melons, summer squash, cucumbers, winter squash, pumpkins, and decorative gourds. They’re all technically fruit, having seeds at their core. Winter squash are defined as hard-skinned squashes (a great oxymoron), a quality that preserves them. In cool, dry conditions winter squash can be happy for a year; many actually grow sweeter over time. And this is harvest season. I like to collect a wide variety from the markets and pile them in a big bowl—they’re beautiful throughout the winter as their numbers diminish.
|Winter squash varieties. Photo by Maria Reidelbach.|
Many of the squash we eat were developed about 7,000 years ago by Native Americans in warmer climes. However, winter squash grow beautifully here in the northeast—cooler days slow growth and sweeten flesh. The deep color reflects major nutrition—powerhouse carotenoids and beta-carotine (vitamin A)—one cup provides 145 percent of the recommended daily intake and half the vitamin C as well. They’re a good source of fiber, great for potassium, B6, folate and other antioxidants.
I love checking out all the different forms of winter squash. I can’t think of another type of vegetable that is as variable—and sculptural. Each has its own special qualities.
Sweet dumpling – small, pumpkin-shaped; cream with dark green stripes that turn orange after harvest; delicious golden flesh.
Acorn squash – round with deep, wide ridges; relatively thin-skinned, from deep forest green to bright orange; with juicy orange flesh. Multicolored carnival squash (an acorn-sweet dumpling cross) are the most beautiful and flavorful.
Butternut – elongated pear-shape with thin, edible, buff-colored skin; flavorful orange flesh; dependably good; best value; easiest to peel.
Jack-o-lantern pumpkin – you can eat these, but they are bred to be decorative not delicious. Try roasting the seeds with salt and herbs.
Hubbard squash – usually blobby and enormous (easily 10 pounds—and up to 300!); thick skin, warty but beautiful blue-green-grey color; bright gold and starchy flesh.
Cheese pumpkin – buff-colored, thin skin; brilliant orange flesh, but sometimes soggy.
Turk’s turban – old variety; mottled cream and orange, very hard skin; round with a smaller, puffy beanie portion; starchy orange flesh.
Buttercup – round and beanied, like the Turk’s turban; mottled dark to light green; golden-orange flesh with old-fashioned flavor; multipurpose.
Delicata – small, blimp-shaped; very thin, edible, cream-colored skin with dark green stripes.
Kabocha – from Japan; fat, teardrop shape; dark green, thin, bumpy, edible skin; with richly flavored, starchy orange flesh. The Kuri is an orange-skinned version.
For best flavor and condition, choose squash that is rock-hard all over with dull, not shiny skin; mature vivid coloring; and robust, corky stem present (fully ripened). Keep your squash cool and dry—down to 55 degrees, but not in the fridge unless it’s cut (okay for colors to fade).
And in the kitchen, how do you deal with these big, hard doorstops? You’ll need to cut them up first; for this there are several methods. The biggest squash can be dropped on a cement floor, giving new meaning to “smashing pumpkins.” Or cut them with a knife or cleaver, sized to the squash. You can use a rolling pin or mallet to tap the blade through. Or you can put the thing into a hot oven or microwave for a few minutes to soften the skin. Remove the seeds with a spoon, scraping out the loose fibers. If desired, peel with a vegetable peeler or knife now or after cooking.
Baking squash concentrates the flavor and browning adds caramel notes. Coat the squash in oil or butter and seasonings and roast in a 325- to 350-degree oven until fork-tender (from 30 minutes to 2 hours depending on the size of the pieces). Steaming is quicker and keeps starchy squash moist. Cut squash into pieces and steam for 15 to 30 minutes until tender. It’s better to overcook winter squash than to undercook it—don’t serve it crunchy.
The rich, buttery, chestnutty quality of winter squash is compatible with many flavor profiles. I love making squash soup—it’s a winter staple. I never get tired of it because there are so many variations. Here’s the basic recipe, with lots of ideas.
Winter Squash Soup Master Recipe
• 2 lbs squash (one medium squash), peeled and cut into pieces
• 1 medium onion
• 1-2 tbsp butter or oil
• 1 tsp salt
• 3 cups of liquid
• 3 tbsp fresh herbs
• Simmer the squash until tender in the liquid (or use leftover cooked squash).
• In another pan, saute the onion in the butter or oil until translucent. Add the onion, salt, and most of the herbs to the soup. Simmer at a low temperature for another 15 minutes.
• Puree using a stick blender, stand blender, or food processor until smooth.
• Taste and adjust seasoning, add more liquid if it’s too thick. Sprinkle with remaining herbs to serve. (Can also be served without pureeing as a vegetable soup.)
The flavors below all taste great with winter squash. Try a few at a time, and/or pick a flavor theme (curry, Thanksgiving, southwestern).
• Oil: butter, browned butter, nut oil, vegetable or olive oil
• Liquid: chicken or vegetable broth; cow, nut or soy milk; apple cider, even water
• Fresh herbs: parsley; thyme; sage; marjoram; lovage; lemon grass, balm and verbena; chile peppers; cilantro; garlic; chives
• Spices (saute in the onion pan to freshen the flavor): allspice, coriander, bay leaf, curry, cayenne, chili powder, smoked paprika, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, nutmeg, ginger, turmeric
• Accent flavors (add juicy ones to the simmering soup, sprinkle crunchy ones on just before serving): chopped apples, brandy, cognac, bacon, caramel, coconut (raw or toasted), cranberries, honey, maple syrup, molasses, citrus juice and zest, hearty mushrooms, raisins, toasted nuts, cheese
• Companion veg for vegetable soup: kale, chickpeas, white beans, chard
• Veg for pureed soup (cook in simmering liquid): carrots, parsnips, rutabaga, turnips, and other root vegetables
Maria Reidelbach is an author, artist and local food activist. She lives, works and eats in Accord, NY. (email@example.com)