Winter Squash


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

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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