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Winter Squash Season Starts: A Squash Line-Up

November 07, 2011 | Tags: Deborah Madison , Food , Vegetables | Post comment

Winter Squash Season Starts: A Squash Line-Up

November is a great time to take a look at winter squash varieties. Summer vegetables are finished in most places, the weather has turned cold, our appetites have shifted, and there are few vegetables more durable, comforting or versatile than winter squash.

What makes a squash a winter squash?  Mostly it’s the hard shell or skin that keeps the flesh from drying out. Some go both ways.  Delicata have edible skins when they first appear in the fall, but they get harder with time, enough that they’ll last for months, though not as long, say, as Hubbard.

While winter squash differ a lot in size, shape, color, and density, nearly all have sweet orange flesh. With the exception of pumpkins specifically grown for eating (often called pie pumpkins), other varieties of squash always make a better vegetable than pumpkin, with better texture and more flavor.

For many years we have been limited in our squash selection. But there are many more kinds of squash than those we find in the supermarket, and even that supply is starting to change. Some show up in farmers markets and even some supermarkets. They are worth keeping a look out for.  If you’re really interested in squashes in all their splendid variety, check out The Compleat Squash by Amy Goldman. The stunning pictures will introduce you to many more squash than you ever imagined existed, and some you might know very well.

In the meantime, here is a glossary of some squash varieties you might come across:

Acorn:  This is one winter squash most Americans know--acorn shaped with convoluted skin that’s dark green, orange, or a splashy mixture of the two. The flesh color is greenish-yellow and flavor tends to be bland, which may be one reason it’s often cooked with brown sugar or maple syrup.

Red Banana Squash: These were once a popular squash. They are large, oblong shaped creatures and are not often sold whole. This is the squash you may find cut into slabs and wrapped in plastic at the market. Once cut, it’s an easy squash to work with.  The skin is light pinkish-tan, the flesh yellow, and the flavor rather mild. It’s easy to roast and its flavor can be improved with a spicy herb butter or such.

Sibley Squash:  Sibley, an American heirloom also known as Pike’s Peak, is similar in shape to the banana squash (long and narrow) but sometimes it resembles a Blue Hubbard (to which it’s related) with some swelling in the middle. It’s an utterly delicious squash and though large, relatively easy to handle.  Eight to ten pounds is not too heavy to carry from the farmers market to your car.  Like the banana squash, when halved and seeded, the shallow-curved shape lends itself well to roasting.  Add some seasoned butter, or brush it with olive oil and sea salt first, then cut it crosswise into pieces before serving. The flesh isn’t as deep an orange as some other squashes, but it is moist and quite flavorful. Not as long keeping as the Blue Hubbard, it’s best to try to eat it by or around the New Year.

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, but is easy to peel. Its solid neck is ideal for gratins and other dishes that require large pieces.  It’s an excellent all-purpose winter squash and about the easiest one to use.

Buttercup:  Different types, including Honey Delight, Black Forest, Red Kuri, and the Japanese Kabocha, are squat and round and usually have dark green skins except for the Kuri, which is red-orange. These squash have dense flesh, which is so extraordinarily sweet. The texture is smooth and buttery and very rich.

Spaghetti Squash:  Usually stringiness is a disadvantage in squash, but here’s it’s taken to an extreme as a positive feature. Oval, with yellow skin, its cooked flesh is pulled into long strands resembling spaghetti.  It’s somewhat bland but good when treated just as spaghetti, that is, with sauces, like tomato sauce. Chilled cook squash can be tossed with vinaigrette and served as a winter salad.

Hubbard:  Orange, blue skinned, or slate colored, Hubbards are generally large, ungainly, and covered with “warts,” but they are also among the best for eating.  New varieties, such as Queensland Blue, are small enough for the home cook to handle with greater ease. You can always bake a large squash whole, then cut it when it softens and remove the seeds. If there’s more flesh than you can can use at one meal, freeze the rest and use it later. Hubbards are old-fashioned squash with great merit and worth looking for.

Red Kuri: What a pretty squash!  Red-orange skin that’s smooth (and sometimes quite tough), a point at the stem end that gives it a teardrop shape, a friendly size for most kitchens.  Its flesh is mild, sweet with nutty, with chestnut overtones. Red Kuri is also known as Japanese squash, orange Hokkaido squash and Baby Red Hubbard. The flesh is yellow-orange rather than pure, deep orange, and there may be a surprising layer of green flesh near the seeds. It’s also a little drier than many squash. Still, this is a versatile squash and not so large that you can’t cut it in halves or quarters and bake it as a dinner vegetable. If the skin seems especially hard to cut without cutting yourself, you’ll be better off baking the squash in the oven, then cutting it into wedges or scooping out the flesh and using it in baked goods, soups, or mashed squash done like potatoes.

Mini-Squash and Pumpkins:  Sweet Dumplings, Jack-be-Littles, and other tiny varieties 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 squash have excellent flavor.  Their size makes them good shallow containers, and their skins are easy to peel.  Once peeled, they can be cut into rounds and sautéed. Or leave the skins on and eat them if they’re tender, or cut around them if they’re not.

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:  This is the Italian, blue-green skinned squash covered with bubbly warts that’s used in Italy for making pumpkin ravioli. It’s an exceptionally good keeper and has dense, orange, sweet flesh.

Rouge vif D’Etampes:  Also called “Cindarella pumpkin” as it resembles the pumpkin in the fairy tale, this big orange handsome squash is flat with deeply indented grooves.  It is a French heirloom that has been in America for some time.  Recently it has been sold as a Halloween pumpkin in some stores, but it is a good eating squash, too. One who is ambitious can fill it with broth, bake it whole, then scoop the flesh into the broth once it’s cooked.

Musquee de Provence:  This handsome squash is very similar in shape to Rouge vif d’Etampes, but is buff colored rather than red-orange.

General Notes about Squash

What to Look For:  Winter squash and pumpkins should be firm and hefty for their size. The heavier they are, the denser and more moist the flesh within. 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 completely, which may be many weeks and even months.

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 sautéed, or baked in gratins and simmered in stews.  The skins and seeds add flavor to soup stocks.

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 them whole in the oven until they begin to soften, then cut them.  Spaghetti squash needs to be punctured in several places before baking or it will explode in the oven. Some nonchalant cooks I know drop large squash on the floor to break them open -- advisable only when all else fails.

Yield:  Allowing for the seeds and skins, a 1-pound squash, halved and baked, is adequate for two servings, and one pound of peeled, seeded squash yields approximately 2 cups puréed.  Whole weights and trimmed weights will 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 used in other dishes.

Good Partners for Winter Squash and Pumpkins
- olive oil, butter, ghee, sunflower seed oil
- sage, rosemary, garlic, red pepper flakes, chile
- brown sugar, coconut milk, ginger, lime, lemon grass, curry
- Fontina, Gruyère, Pecorino Romano, Parmesan
- onions, radicchio, apple, and quince