Winter Squash

This post originally appeared in the Bloomington Herald Times on November 16, 2005

Squash_pasta_034
Well, I guess I am doing my job as an educator – of palates, if not of
minds.

“I have never put squash in my mouth before,” one of my
students told me Sunday at a class dinner for which I’d made winter squash and
shitake mushroom rigatoni with sage. “My parents will be so proud of me,
because I am always afraid of vegetables.”

It’s a good thing she didn’t see it before it was cooked. If there was
ever a vegetable that could find part-time work lurking under the beds of small
children, winter squash would be it.

Dumpy, lumpy and squat at best, horned and warty at worst, the winter
squashes look like refugees from the “Star Wars” cantina scene. They
do not look like something good to eat.

But beauty is not everything, after all. Under the tough and seemingly
impenetrable armor of the winter squash is a sweet and nutty orange flesh that
is worth the extra effort it takes to get it out. Maybe to make up for all the
trouble it causes, it is as versatile as a vegetable can be.

Winter squash can be the basis of a warming soup, with curry and apples,
perhaps; diced and roasted, it makes a fabulous salad, with some curly lettuce
and goat cheese and toasted pecans.

It can be sliced and baked into a gratin, with butter, thyme and gruyere
cheese, or pureed and used to stuff plump ravioli, bathed in browned butter
with chopped sage or, most familiarly, sweetened and spiced and baked into a
pie (think pumpkin.)

If you are improvising, remember that the winter squashes have a special
affinity for the woodsy freshness of sage and thyme, for the holiday spiciness
of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves, for the exotic fragrance of curry, and
for odd companions, like fennel, orange, and wild mushrooms.

As member of the cucurbit family, winter squashes are all related – to
each other, of course, but also to cucumbers and melons, and summer squash
(younger, tenderer versions of their hoary winter cousins.)

All of them are fruits with sweet crisp flesh surrounding a cavity of
seeds; the winter squash are just a little harder to get into.

You’ll need a strong, heavy knife to do it. The only winter squash I
even consider peeling before cooking are butternuts, with their long smooth
sides that make a vegetable peeler a feasible proposition.

After I peel them I cut off the bulbous bottom portion, making it easier
to halve it and scoop out the seeds (which, like the seeds of all winter
squash, are edible and can be dried, roasted and salted.) Then, carefully, and
with a heavy knife or cleaver, I dice the squash and roast it, or slice it and
bake it.

All other squashes (and occasionally butternuts as well if I am going to
end up pureeing them) I cut in half, bake, and then scoop out the flesh once it
is cooked and soft. You really need to watch your fingers when you cut them – I
try to buy small and manageable squash when I can but some, like the hubbards,
just come big and tough.

We’re right at the beginning of the season for winter squash, whose
vitamins and general healthfulness more than make up for the lack of fresh
summer produce. Stored in a cool, dry place, squash will last all winter, and
only get sweeter and more concentrated in flavor as they age.

You can stock up at the Bloomington Community Farmers’ Market every
Saturday morning through the Holiday Market on Nov. 26.

Butternut Squash Rigatoni with Shitake Mushrooms and Sage

If you are not cooking for vegetarians, some smoky bacon or pancetta
would be a good addition to this dish.

Note: Squash roasted as directed in the first part of this recipe, with
salt, pepper and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, can be served as a side dish,
alone, or with roasted root vegetables (rutabagas, sweet potatoes and
parsnips.) This is great with Thanksgiving turkey.

1 medium butternut squash, peeled, seeded and diced (about 5 cups)

Olive oil

Salt and pepper,

Balsamic vinegar

1 medium onion, cut into slivers

3 cups sliced shitake mushroom caps

2 cloves roasted garlic (or raw, chopped, if you prefer a stronger garlic
taste)

2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage

4 scallions, cleaned and chopped

1/4- 1/2 cup grated asiago cheese

1 pound rigatoni

1/2 cup roasted butternut squash seeds, cleaned, rinsed, tossed with oil
and salt (optional)

 

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss squash with olive oil, salt and pepper
and roast until soft and caramelized, stirring once or twice. When cooked,
remove from oven and toss with two or three tablespoons of balsamic vinegar.

In a medium saute pan, heat several tablespoons of olive oil. Add onion
and cook over medium heat until soft and turning golden brown.

Turn up heat to medium high and add mushrooms, cooking until softened
and beginning to brown. Add more oil if necessary.

Add garlic, sage, salt and pepper to taste. Cook until garlic is soft
(but not browned) and mixture is fragrant. Add to roasted squash.

Cook pasta according to package directions in a large pot of boiling
salted water. Drain.

Toss pasta with 3 tablespoons of olive oil, then with squash mixture,
grated cheese and scallions. Adjust seasonings, adding another splash or two of
vinegar and more oil, if desired. Garnish with roasted squash seeds.

Serves four people as a main course, six as a first course.

Kadoo Bhaji (Pumpkin Vegetable)

From Santosh Jain, Vegetarian Nirvana (

Bloomington

: 1st Books, 2003)

In the middle of pumpkin pie season, here is a fabulous and warming
nontraditional way to cook this autumn vegetable. It is one of my favorite
dishes from Santosh’s Indian cooking classes. Other kinds of winter squash
should work here as well (and might be easier to peel.)

1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seeds

2 tablespoons coriander seeds

6 tablespoons vegetable oil

3 teaspoons panch pooran (a mix of whole spices: 2 teaspoons each cumin
seeds, mustard seeds, and fennel seeds, 1 each of fenugreek and kalonji seeds,
available at Sahara Mart)

1-2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon paprika or cayenne pepper

8 cups pumpkin, peeled and cut into 1 inch cubes

1 tablespoon sugar

2 or 3 green chilies or jalapenos, very finely chopped

2 tablespoons amchur or juice of 1 to 2 limes

Dry roast and grind the cumin and coriander seeds.

In a wide, heavy skillet, heat the oil on medium. Test the temperature
of the oil by dropping in a few cumin seeds. If they sizzle, add all the whole
spices. Stir to mix the spices with the oil and brown them for 5-10 seconds.

Add salt, turmeric, paprika and the pumpkin, stirring well. The oil and
spices should coat the pumpkin pieces. Cover and cook on medium low for about
20 minutes or until the pumpkin is tender, stirring frequently to prevent
burning.

Add sugar,
jalapenos and amchur or lime juice. Taste and adjust seasoning. Add the roasted
and ground cumin and coriander seeds and mix well. Serve hot. Serves 8-10.

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