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Friday, November 30, 2012


From the Root Cellar Dept.: It’s the time of year to be dining on squash. Meet some unusual varieties, and the preparation ideas that they can inspire.


“I’M HAVING A SQUASH TASTING,” my neighbor said. “Come on over and try some varieties you’ve never tasted before.”

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Six varieties were in the offing and she was right: I knew only the beige Waltham Butternut. Its preparation, like that of the others, was simple: oven-roasted, lightly salt-and-peppered.

Ah, the associations one bite of the butternut inspires! Decades of holiday meal memories live in that first bite, in its earthy sweetness and flaky texture, crying out for the reassurance of a pat of melting butter. This kind of squash is so season-specific that its positively Proustian.

Thick skin and a plump size classify it as a winter squash, as opposed to those thin-skinned summer varieties like zucchini. The genus of all squash is Cucurbita; the large winter squash generally fall into the species Cucurbita maxima, while smaller types such as butternut are C. pepo.

Just as it’s a rambunctious garden guest, squash has an all-over-the-place history. The word itself comes from the Narragansett “askutasquash,” which means that it’s green and can be eaten raw, suggesting that even Native Americans had too many zucchini on their hands.

Like so many other foodstuffs that head for our tables, our squash choices have been narrowed into a few easy-to-process types, giving us plenty of pumpkins, acorns, spaghetti and butternut, with a few pattypan incursions here and there. Opening up to the other varieties requires research, which can be done online at the websites of many seed suppliers, or in your lap with Amy Goldman’s beautiful book The Compleat Squash.

It’s a species-by-species tour of hundreds of heirloom varieties (thanks also to gorgeous photos by Victor Schrager) that reflect not only Goldman’s all-consuming passion for the stuff (she describes herself as a “cucurbitacean” – her own coinage – and hopes you’ll be one, too) but also her tireless work as a seed saver.

If you have the garden space, it’s worth getting some seeds in next spring – if for no other reason than to see these critters blossom and spread. The blossoms themselves can be delicious, and then, come fall, you’ll be shin deep in a shallow of broad leaves, tangled vines and the pods themselves. (I’m convinced it was the moonlit sight of a squash garden that inspired Jack Finney to write his classic book The Bodysnatchers, better known from the “Invasion of” movies that followed.)

And there’s nothing like crunching into a young yellow squash just plucked from its stem, offering a sweetness that seems to vanish instantly as the gourd travels from garden to kitchen.

But you don’t need to grow squash yourself to appreciate its appeal. “There are many levels of appreciation,” says Goldman, who notes in her book that “(t)hey consume me and I consume them.”

Eating squash provokes enough passion to have inspired, back in February, a cook-off in Brooklyn that drew 20 home-based chefs to the V-Spot Restaurant in Park Slope, fulfilling the challenge of preparing “a tasty vegan dish using seasonal winter squash.”

The result? Such items as Winter Squash Risotto, Butternut Persimmon Pudding with maple syrup, cinnamon and ginger, Cider Glazed Squash with Greens, Squash Stuffed Mushrooms and Indian Winter Squash Halwa. An early favorite was Bruschetta de Zucca, which added ginger and shallots and sugared pecans to the squash, but Winter Squash Streusel Pie took the $200 first prize.

No doubt the most palate-pleasing way to consume squash is in such fancy preparations, but I was happy enough to meet five unfamiliar varieties in the playing-field-leveling roasting pans in which they hit the table. Sarah Johnston, who grew and prepared the gourds, is the Organic Agriculture Specialist in NYS’s Agriculture & Markets Division of Agricultural Protection and Development, and thus has a professional stake in familiarity with such produce take root.

We began with Galeuse d’Eysines, a C. maxima you have to love warts and all because it’s studded with barnacle-like protrusions. It’s roasted flesh is juicy and sports a slight flavor of oranges.

Rouge Vif d’Estampes comes from the same species, but it looks like a pumpkin that’s been flattened – and sports a pumpkin’s bright orange. Also known as a Cinderella pumpkin, it proved to have a light, mousselike consistency but only a modest sweetness. At a later meal, it found its way into a casserole my wife prepared, and the added sugar, seasonings and butter did nice things to the flavor.

Staying with C. max, our next candidate was a pale green Jarrahdale, named for its Australian town of likely origin. This huge gourd had a mealy texture to its meat within, but mealy in an attractive way. Its delicate flavor carries a suggestion of sweetness, but it was enough to be satisfying as a stand-alone meal.

Sunshine kabocha, also known as Johnny’s Sunshine (C. pepo), has a potato-like density, and it reminded me of that tuber in its flavor, too. This is an ornamental beauty that’s ornamental for a reason – it’s a lot of work to consume. There are hybrid versions, however, reputed to be far more flavorful.

The C. pepo species is also where you find the acorn group, which includes the delicious Delicata and the versatile Jack-Be-Little, not to mention the crooknecks, scallops and our old friend zucchini.

Last on the menu, hailing from C. argyrosperma, was Green-Striped Cushaw. It’s green and yellow stripes and lute-like shape is about as classically gourd-ish as they come, which is to its benefit: Its cantaloupe-colored innards have but a moderate sweetness and put me in mind of parsnips.

Dinner was accompanied by Swiss chard and cornbread, and remains one of the most unusual – and enlightening – meals I’ve attended, and (as Sarah intended) already has me looking with new interest at next year’s seed offerings for my own garden.

Meanwhile, there are signs of positive change. During a recent supermarket visit, I noted some unusual additions to the usual squash array. Sweet dumpling, carnival, delicata, banana and golden acorn were among them, suggesting that the wish to diversify one’s at-home menu has extended that much further, and we can hold out hope for more heirlooms to come.

Metroland Magazine, 25 October 2007

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