Set the Table with Winter Squash
Written onSeptember 01 , 2009
A couple of years ago, as the gardening season at the Westminster West Elementary School came to a close, my fellow Master Gardener and school garden coordinator, Albin Zak, and I joined the 30 kids and their teachers for a squash-tasting event. First and second grade teacher Alison Taylor had made up recording sheets for the children to fill out as they sampled the various squashes we had prepared—they could circle the smiling faces for the squash they liked, and the frowning faces for those they didn’t. I brought acorn and delicata and buttercup; Albin brought blue Hubbards and his favorite, “that Japanese one,” as he put it, which is really called Tetsukabuto.
As we spooned mounds of orange and yellow squash onto their plates, some kids protested that they didn’t like squash. But soon enough they couldn’t resist trying seconds and thirds, as we helped them formulate their thoughts about the taste and texture of each one. Were they drier or more moist? Tender or firm? Stringy or creamy? Were they super-sweet or more savory? Before long kids were clamoring to tell us which were their favorites. Some loved the Japanese, but I’d have to say, the most popular squash at the West West school was, and remains, the delicata. (They’re my favorite too, except perhaps for the very similar, but just a tad sweeter, sweet dumpling.)
I asked Sophie Basescu, who was in second grade at the time, what she remembered about the taste-testing. “It was really fun, because even if you didn’t like them, you got to try them, and find out which ones you liked… The butternut were sweet and really good…but others were kind of bitter...one or two of them weren’t as ripe as they could be.” Well, Sophie is right. All winter squashes need to be good and ripe, and most need to be cured properly, if they are to be sweet. (“Curing” means leaving the harvested squash in the field, or inside at 75 to 80 degrees, for about 10 days after harvest. Then they should be stored at 50 to 55 degrees.) Squashes can be bland and stringy if they’re not ripened and matured properly before storing; some are at their best several months after harvest. Another veteran of the taste-testing event was second grader Lexi Larsen, who told me that one of the squashes (she couldn’t remember which one) had a hint of coconut to it. “It really got to my tastebuds,” she said. “It makes me think, ‘Now I’m going to eat squash all the time!’” She added, “Now I’ve just got to convince my sister to eat squash—she still doesn’t like it.” Well, one kid at a time….
There are three main types of winter squashes that grow in our Vermont climate: the pepos, which are usually ribbed and include delicata, sweet dumpling, and acorn—these tend to have a drier texture; the moschatas, which are smooth and tan, like butternut, and tend to be moister; and the maximas, which usually have bumpy surfaces and button ends, like Hubbards, buttercups, and many heirloom Japanese and French types—these also have flesh on the dry side. Although acorn and butternut are the most well known, it turns out that some of us in New England are partial to the less familiar squashes. Take that Tetsukabuto, for example. I called Zak and his wife, Thelma, to ask why it was so special: “It’s delicious, it’s creamy, it takes just a bit of salt, and frankly, it’s luscious to eat,” Zak said of the nearly round, ribbed, dark green medium-size fruit. Its flesh is deep yellow, and it has a sweet, nutty taste and texture that Pine Tree Seeds (the Maine seed company where Zak gets his seed) describes as “like custard.”
Zak, transplanted here from Texas, complains that we Northerners like everything too sweet, what with adding maple syrup to our baked squash; he and Thelma eat theirs with just salt and pepper, letting each squash reveal its individual flavor and personality. “Lakota is an interesting squash,” Zak muses. “It’s on the sweet side, a bit on the dry side, but with butter, it’s delicious. It’s easy to grow and it’s prolific.” It’s also unusual looking—pear-shaped, with variegated green and orange skin, and golden flesh. He says a great way to eat Lakota is to cook it until it’s translucent, put it in a food processor, put in some concentrated apple juice (I’d go for cider), add cinnamon, allspice, and ginger, puree it, and re-heat and eat it or freeze it for later.
Returning to the school favorite, delicata are ivory-colored, small, oblong fruits with dark green stripes. Zak likes to split these down the middle and serve them “like a boat,” with butter melting in the middle. All winter squashes have a hard outer skin, which seals in their flavor and nutrients and allows us to store them, but the skin on delicatas is thinner than on most other winter squash, and is fine to eat. Sweet dumpling are a similar color, but round with flattened shoulders. They have a buttery-rich flavor, a dry texture, and deep orange flesh. Carnival, which Zak refers to as a “tourist squash” because of its dramatic color—flecks of green, gold, and yellow—is a cross between a sweet dumpling and an acorn type. Despite its flashiness, it’s really very good: nutty and sweet.
Another wonderful squash is buttercup, which Fedco Seeds calls “New England’s favorite winter squash.” It is dark green, ribbed, with flat shoulders and an acorn-shaped white button on the bottom. It has deep orange, almost reddish flesh, and a dry texture. It works well for pies, without needing any other sweetener, and is also good for main dishes. I grow a variety called “Uncle David’s Dakota Dessert” and I have to admit, the main reason is the name, but it’s a great buttercup with thick flesh and a small seed cavity. It comes from North Dakotan farmer David Podoll, whose family has been saving the seed of this strain for 70 years.
For advice and suggestions about cooking squash I turned to Westminster West resident Crescent Dragonwagon, author of Passionate Vegetarian, The Cornbread Gospels, and several other cookbooks. The first squash she mentioned was, you guessed it, the delicata. “Slice them lengthwise, spoon out the seeds—a grapefruit knife works great for this—cut them into big chunks, and caramelize them very, very slowly in olive oil and garlic, over very low heat so the garlic doesn’t burn. Put them over whole wheat fettuccine with freshly ground black pepper and a little Parmesan.” Yum. She also mentioned butternut squash soup, which can go many ways, but is nice as a bisque with one part pureed tomatoes, three parts butternut squash puree, and two parts water or stock. “It’s so delicious and sweet you’d think it had cream in it. It’s a beautiful color as it is, or add steamed broccoli for a contrast of color and texture.”
For myself, I just take my winter squash, slice it in half, place it cut side down in a pan with about a half-inch of water, and bake at 350 degrees until I can stick a fork through the skin. Then I turn the squash over, fill the cavity with some maple syrup and butter, and continue baking until the squash is tender. Or, I cut the squash up in chunks and bake it with potatoes, onions, and apples, turning all with olive oil and salt. No matter how you cook them, don’t forget to eat that bounty of stored squash before spring!
Illustrations by Meg Lucas