Thursday, September 18, 2008

Winter Squash

We’ve had a couple of chilly nights lately, and, it being mid-September, there’s talk of foliage and fall harvest happenings in the air, besides the first whiffs of wood smoke in the crisp mornings. At the farmers’ markets and farm stands and in many backyard gardens, the winter squashes and pumpkins are ripe, so it must be autumn. Fortunately we don’t have any frost on those pumpkins yet, and a good thing, too, because there’s a lot of good fall eating yet to do, and frost is the great interrupter of our feasting.

Winter squash differ from summer squash in a couple of different ways, the most obvious being that we eat summer squash with it’s soft, edible skin while the fruit is immature, whereas we allow the winter squash with its relatively tough, inedible skin, to mature on the vine before harvesting. It is traditional, as well as practical, to cut winter squash and pumpkins with about 2 to 3 inches of stem attached, and to allow them to cure in the field for a week or more if no frost threatens. This curing aids in longer keeping qualities of butternuts, buttercups, Hubbards, and others, but Acorn are a poor keeper, relatively speaking, and should be eaten within 5 or 6 weeks of harvest.

New Englanders have relied on winter squash as part of their fall and winter diets since the beginning of America. A member of the genus cucurbita, they should not be stored in the refrigerator as they will suffer from chill injury. Store in a dry, draft free place, like a cellar, at 55 degrees or so and they should last into January or beyond. Winter squash are rich in beta-carotene as well as starch and fiber. There are three major varieties; cucurbita maxima which include the buttercup and its many types, amber squash, Hubbard, turban squash and banana squash, cucurbita pepo which include acorn squash, delicata and carnival or festival squash, and cucubita moschata or butternut. All have firm, usually yellow-orange flesh surrounding a fibrous seedpod. The flesh is moderately sweet and lends itself to both sweet and savory preparations. Winter squashes also lend themselves to being used as containers for other ingredients and, after baking, being eaten along with their contents.

As far as pumpkins go, any field pumpkins are fine for carving and using as fall decorations, but don’t bother trying to eat them. They tend to be very fibrous and don’t have that much flavor. Pie pumpkins and little sweet pumpkins are fine, whether for pies or as part of a dish of roasted fall vegetables. And don’t forget the pumpkin seeds. Toss then in a hot skillet to toast and add a little salt. Eat in moderation as they are high in fat and calories, but they do include folic acid and iron and are great in salads.

One of our favorite fall meals includes a platter of roasted fall vegetables. You can use anything you can think of or have on hand. Just cube up some peeled butternut and/or buttercup squash, sweet pumpkin, potatoes (we like fingerlings and leave the skin on), carrots, turnips, onions, celery, parsnips, and/or celeriac, and add some shallots and garlic divided into cloves. Toss everything in some olive or vegetable oil with some salt and pepper, maybe some thyme, and roast on a half sheet pan lined with parchment paper for 30 to 45 minutes a 400 degrees until tender. Garnish with minced parsley. They’re delicious warm or at room temperature.

Of course, the classic is to divide butternut squash lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, and place butter and either brown sugar or maple syrup in the depression before sprinkling with salt and freshly ground black pepper and baking at 400 degrees until the squash is tender, 30 minutes or so. Mash it all up together still in the skin, and dig in.

Here’s an acorn squash recipe called Zucca al Forno, which we have enjoyed and involves cooking the squash whole with a stuffing.

7 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 onions, cut into fine dice
3/4 pound fresh mushrooms, thinly sliced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 cups mascarpone cheese, or use cream cheese
3/4 pound Emmentaler, grated or use Swiss cheese
1/4 pound Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
3 whole eggs, beaten
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg
8 slices white bread, cut into 1-inch squares
2 large acorn squash, top cut off and seeds and strings removed, caps reserved or 4 festival or carnival squash prepared the same way.

In a medium skillet, heat 3 tablespoons of the butter, add the onion and mushrooms, and saute until they soften and the onions release their juices. Add salt and pepper, to taste, and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
In a large bowl, combine the mascarpone, Emmentaler, Parmigiano-Reggiano, eggs, and nutmeg, and stir well. Season with salt and pepper and stir in the onions and mushrooms.
In a skillet, melt the remaining butter and toss in the bread cubes, cooking over high heat until they are crisp.
Place the squash in a baking dish and, using a total of a third of the cheese mixture, stuff the bottom of each of the squash. Using a total of half of the bread cubes, place them in even quantities into each of the squash. Top the bread cube layer with more of the cheese mixture, then the remaining bread cubes, and the remaining cheese. Replace the top on the acorn squash and roast 1 hour in the oven, until the flesh is very soft. Remove from the oven, let cool for a few minutes and scoop out the cheese and flesh to serve, or if using the festival or carnival squash, serve individually.

My personal favorite is the buttercup squash, especially when their flesh is nice and dry. They roast and mash beautifully. Hubbards tends to be overly watery for my taste, but they sure are impressive with their knobby skin and immense sizes, up to 300 lbs. The buttercup roasts or steams well and has nice flavor, so it tends to be used a lot in my fall kitchen. The acorns, delicata and the small, colorful festival squashes are sweet and tender right now and should be enjoyed at their peak.

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