Saturday, December 15, 2012

Meet The Squash Family

Its time at last for me to survey the squash field.

Actually, its 5 days too late according to my new Mondays schedule, but I lost my photo for this post and that took away my thunder.  I was planning to number 11 different squashes and review each with a recipe, but now I have to do something shorter.

So I will offer some recipes and answer some questions because squashes or winter melons daunt a lot of people.

Question 1 and 2: Is there such a thing as a decorative squash?  If so, why can't I eat them?

Yes, there are squashes grown just to sell as decoration.  For most Americans, this is every kind of squash, but for the culinary minded, it is small colorfully patterned squashes that look like tiny flat pumpkins.  These are grown to sit in the middle of a Thanksgiving Feast, not to be part of it, meaning that even at a local market, you ought to ask if they were sprayed with dangerous chemicals, and get as much info as you can.  That said, I tried 4 varieties of decorative squashes this past month and found 3 of them to be pretty darn adequate and edible.  The last one, I chucked.  The main difference with these is that the "flesh" is a little tougher or has a stringy quality, that maybe they take longer to cook, and they are more "hole" than "doughnut".  The cavity inside is big and there isn't much to cook. But the seeds of any squash can be roasted, with or without seasoning.  And are usually delicious.  So don't just pitch a squash when Thanksgiving is over.

Question 3: How do I cook a squash?

Any squash can be halved, set on a baking tray, and baked in a small amount of water.  The water helps the squash from drying out and to cook evenly.  Most can also be boiled.  This will mean you get less good stuff, if you are dumping out the water before eating.  I boil a butternut if I am making soup, or a spaghetti squash usually because its easier when I am substituting it for pasta.  Others I now roast. In an oven, I bake at 350 for 30 minutes- 45 minutes, depending on how large the squash is.  You can cook it less time if you want it firmer.  Halving a squash to bake or boil it means you simply scoop out the guts once they are soft.  Always scrape away the stringy gummy layer around the hole before cooking, just as if you were cleaning out a pumpkin to make a jack-o-lantern.  A decorative squash will have a thick layer that you don't want to eat.  The acorn squash on the other hand, as example, is almost all good and ready to cook.  A butternut is the hardest thing on earth to peel if you try to do it before boiling or baking.  I would never try again, unless it was to train some Ninja boy in Karate Kid 11, who lacked patience.  Cut it into pieces that fit in the pot, boil or bake, then peel, then return to pot, mash, or put through a blender/processor for soup.  Or eat it right out of the rind.  Halved acorn squashes are the ideal side dish as they come in their own "bowl".  But any squash can be eaten straight from the hard rind.

Question 4: How do I roast these delicious seeds you speak of?

Halve your squash, pull the seeds out and separate from the goop and slimy crud.  Dispose of that crud.  Without washing the seeds, throw them on a tray, preferably in a small toaster oven, put the heat to 300 and watch them.  Small seeds will take as little as 15 minutes and should be flipped after 10.  Pumpkin seeds are the biggest and will take 30 minutes usually.  Flip at 15 minutes.  Season if desired before roasting, when they are still wet. They taste much more flavorful without a rinse.  I season, if at all, always with seasoned salt/garlic salt.  But more often, I just let them go.  Sometimes I burn the seeds on purpose because they are extra crunchy.  I have had a steady supply of seeds all winter thus far because the only seeds I consider inedible come from the kabotcha, which I have mistakenly called a "kubutchen" previously.  Those are chalky and puffy and gross.  Throw them away.  For a seed recipe, see "Mohican Chowder."

Question 5: How do I pick a good eating pumpkin?

Talk to the farmer.  Ask about which pesticides were used, if any.  And try to find a variety other than the pie pumpkin meant to be eaten, or which is an heirloom/vintage variety.  The store pumpkins are grown to be carved and are not featured for their taste, quality, or texture.  I find they fall apart into unpleasant strings.  If you can't cube the "flesh" of your pumpkin wall, then its not an eating variety.  Older pumpkins were grown not for size or shape or color, but to be delicious and healthy.  I stopped buying super size pumpkins because the rind tends to be stretched thin and they may burst open and start leaking while being roasted.  Not ideal if you have some turkey soup or chili in there.

Question 6: How do I know if a squash is ripe?

An acorn squash should be mostly green, showing some orange flecks.  Orange means its a bit past ripe, but will keep.  Same goes for a kabotcha.  A pumpkin is ripe if orange and not on a vine, basically.  The decorative kinds are much harder to tell because they give you no signs.  Butternuts don't change color either.  Nor spaghetti squash.  For those, soft spots will mean rot, so avoid those.  Make sure the rind is not cracked, and don't worry about peak freshness.  Squashes or winter melons were a useful crop because of how long they keep, not the peak of freshness like an orange has.

Question 7: What the heck are these 30 lb squashes?  And what are they used for?

The banana squash is similar to a butternut as a harder squash, but a little more peppery.  Yes these are edible, and the farmer I spoke with says his family will slice off a pound or so every few days, cook it, serve it, and then go back for more.  They keep these monsters in the garage where they stay cool and last all winter.  However, you will need to cut away the exposed section each time.  So you basically eat every other slice, with the waste slices thinner, hopefully.  Alternatively, serve it as the side dish at a big feast or party.

Okay, that seems like enough of that section.  A few favorite recipes:

Acorn Squash

My favorite way to eat this is to split it in half, scoop away the gunk, roast the seeds quickly and then bake upside down in water for 30 minutes.  Pull from the heat, add a pat of butter, a spoonful of brown sugar and of raisins, stir, and its delicious, and in its own bowl.


I bake it upside down and halved.  Seeds are thrown out.  This one I like the flavor on so much that I add no seasonings at all.  Eat it from the "bowl" rind if hungry enough, though it is a larger squash and will feed at least 2, and probably 4.  Be sure to liberally scoop away the gloop or the final product when mashed up will be very unpleasant in the mouth.  My first attempt I tried to save too much "flesh" and threw most of it away.  It was like eating soft thistles.  I would chew and chew and couldn't keep from gagging.

Spaghetti Squash

Detailed on this blog before.  It replaces spaghetti with a sweet pleasant flavor very well enhanced by a good tomato sauce.  I like to cover it then with edamame, and goat cheese, or with feta and olives and pistachios, or all those and peppers.  About anything works.  Very low calorie and very low carb for you dieters.  Bake or boil.


I cook things inside a pumpkin generally, and usually chili.  See older posts.  Watch the labels "chili" or for a title with "pumpkin."  You can also bake one without food in it, and if its large, start the pumpkin "on empty".  They can take over an hour to cook at 450.  I have also started cutting away the back wall on a jack-o-lantern and roasting it in slices, then freezing the slices.  They will come out mushy and be harder to chop but can then be added to soups as "cubed" pumpkin.  Pie pumpkin, canned pumpkin, and dwarf pumpkin all disentegrate into soup.  Canned pumpkin is great in pancakes with a little whipped topping or a buttermilk syrup and of course in cookies and my oat bars.  See older posts for "Oat the Door Bars".

Butternut Squash

This one I make into soup once a year, though it has yet to come out great.  Hard to produce a desired consistency and I have never found the right spices to make it taste delicious like it does in gourmet organic markets where I've had it.  I usually add fat noodles, and do not like celery in this soup.  Other than that, I'm open to your advice.  Really I am.  However, try this: boil 2 cup dry lentils and 1 butternut squash separately, then scoop out your squash and add to your lentils.  Stir in a couple teaspoons of Red Curry Paste and add some cashews and raisins, and you have a great little spicy dish.

Yellow Squash

This one is a yellow acorn squash.  But its not an acorn squash, just has the exact same shape.  Its not sweet at all, and tastes just like the summer squash you get in some frozen vegetable mixes.  It may be the same thing, but I don't think it is.  That summer squash I believe looks like a cucumber.  Well this one I bake and then scoop out/mash and my favorite spice blend is Lemon Lime Paprika and Roasted Fries Spice Mix (both in tall glass bottles by "The Gourmet Collection"- I find them at TJ Maxx and there is no easy way to fabricate them which is why I bought them; but see the previous post for the Fry Spice ingredients).  A pinch of cinnamon and a dash of brown sugar is optional.  I have never known butter to hurt anything.  You can sweeten this with brown sugar and cinnamon and nutmeg, but I do that with other squashes which can't be made spicy.  So I try different spice blends with this one.  I like to crank it towards hot usually.

Banana Squash

I've only ever used this in stir fry, but I do like it there.  Chop it and start it with plenty of oil so it will soften and start it ahead of "soft" veggies like sugar snap peas, with carrots if you use them.  It also fits in curry.  Great stir fry is yours for the having with a little mix of wok oil and stir fry sauce.  I am sure you know where to find both in your grocery store.  Curry is simpler yet with Curry paste and coconut milk.  Watch for dented cans to save money.  If you are going to throw a few cans of coconut milk and then check back in the damaged goods cart at the back of the store the next morning, you will want to be make sure you know where the cameras are.  I have NEVER done that.  That anyone knows of.  And you shouldn't either.  Its naughty.

I was once told by a young man from Chinese heritage with restauranteur parents that I made the best non-Chinese Chinese food he'd ever eaten.  I'm pretty sure that is a compliment.  Kind of like telling someone "white men can jump". 

Well I hope that helps.  Hopefully my next post will be about how to can applesauce, since I still have not done that.  And "Canaan Pie" is coming.  I have revolutionized the pecan pie, in my head.  But its just a theory.  This month I will try the recipe I invented.

Your unsolicited musical advice: Annette Hanshaw!  I feel I've mentioned her before, but can't find where or when I did.  I think most of her very best and most charming songs are on the "Sita Sings the Blues" soundtrack.  That costs $9.99 and is only available as MP3 download.  So I'd look into that if you got this far.

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