The joy of getting a weekly veggie box delivered from the farm means always having the freshest, just-picked, organic produce. There is also the challenge of figuring out how to best use the bounty of vegetables and fruit.
Our CSA – Community Supported Agriculture – subscription is from Riverdog Farm in Guinda, Calif., and the first harbingers of winter arrived in late September in the form of two elongated, orange-striped delicata squash. The next week, we received a red kabocha, and the week after that, an acorn squash. And so it went, with more squash arriving weekly to take refuge atop the kitchen counter.
Before we knew it, what began as a still life with squash started to resemble Caravaggio run amok. Hard winter squash keep well, but we had to find ways to use them.
Our first thought was to roast them until soft, then puree them in stock for a quick soup, or season with butter and maple syrup for a side dish. But that was going to get old fast.
So I put an SOS out on Facebook. Most people responded with the suggestion to roast them until soft and turn them into soup or sweeten the puree with brown sugar or maple syrup.
But Trini Campbell, who owns Riverdog Farm with her husband, Tim Mueller, was quick to offer creative suggestions. She likes to roast squash slices, wedges or halves and serve them as side dishes, sandwich fillings or pureed into soups, custards or pie fillings.
Inspiration for these sweet, nutritious, low-calorie vegetables can also be found around the globe. Japanese cooks turn slices of kabocha into tempura. Indians use sweet squash in curries, while Italians stuff ravioli with roasted butternut and serve the classic dish with brown butter and sage. And Moroccans like to combine butternut puree with caramelized onions, cinnamon, raisins and fried almonds, or slowly braise grated or diced squash in meat tagines.
But some of the most innovative uses can be found in the Bay Area, where squash appears in everything from gourmet sandwiches to crab cakes.
“I love to use pureed kabocha or other winter squash as the binder, instead of breadcrumbs, in crab cakes,” says chef Jesse Cool, whose California restaurants include Menlo Park’s Flea Street and the Cool Cafe at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center. “Guests get excited with the sweet flavor. It’s our most popular appetizer when fresh crab is in season.”
Pureed squash cleverly mimics high-calorie cheese sauces at Mua restaurant in Oakland, Calif., where the popular mac and cheese, for example, looks exactly like the classic recipe but is considerably more healthful. It’s actually mac and squash, chef/owner Sanju Dong says. Pureed kabocha squash is blended with a little cream and white wine for a sauce so rich and golden, no one misses the cheese.
Winter squashes make wonderful vegetarian entrees as well, says Udo Prambs, a chef and instructor at the French Culinary Institute in Campbell, Calif.
At this time of year, the German-born chef teaches students to take advantage of the plentiful produce by simmering chunks of butternut and other winter squashes in vegetable stock with tomatoes, shallots and onions for a hearty winter stew. Tossed with toasted nuts and a sweet vinegar dressing, squash also makes marvelous salads, he says.
But the most interesting take on the noble squash may be this: Roasted squash sandwiches have begun popping up on swanky restaurant menus, as well as at street food fests.
“People weren’t sure at first,” says Shari Washburn, who co-owns Ebbett’s Good to Go, a groovy blue food truck that operates out of Emeryville, Calif. But a little encouragement – as in, try it, you’ll like it – did the trick. Ebbett’s grilled cheese, bacon and roasted butternut squash sandwiches were a hit at Off the Grid, and variations on the theme – including one made with manchego, pickled red onions, aioli, thyme and radicchio – have met with similar success.
Washburn tosses peeled, thinly sliced butternut squash with olive oil, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes before roasting. The flavorful results add color and creamy richness to all sorts of delicious, gourmet sandwich fare.
And roasted squash sandwiches are among the most popular items on the winter menu at San Francisco’s Grand Cafe, says executive chef Alicia Jenish. Jenish marinates thin rounds of delicata squash in a mixture of maple syrup, sherry vinegar, garlic, cayenne and olive oil, then roasts them until the flesh is tender and the edges are crispy. Tucked into baguettes with warm goat cheese, arugula and sage pesto, it’s a match made in heaven.
Next week when the veggie box arrives, I know exactly what to make.
ACORN: This dark bluish-green squash may be the most common winter squash outside California. Most people add maple syrup, honey or brown sugar when they cook this squash.
BUTTERCUP: A round, turban-shaped squash, buttercups have an incredibly creamy, dark-orange flesh and are consistently sweet and flavorful. Bake, steam or simmer them for soups, purees and pies.
BUTTERNUT: These smooth, tan squashes are prized for pies and roasting. Butternut squash have a creamy texture and sweet orange pulp that is particularly good in soups, stews and braised dishes.
DELICATA: Elongated, with tender, pale yellow skin, the delicata squash has very sweet, pale orange flesh and an edible peel. Slice them thinly and roast until tender.
KABOCHA: These squash have lots of seeds and not much meat, but the deep orange-colored flesh is sweet and smooth. Slices can be fried tempura-style, steamed, braised, baked or sauteed.
ROASTED SQUASH SLICES: Cut winter squash in half. Remove seeds, but leave skin on. Slice ¼- to ½-inch thick. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet in a single layer. Drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and finely chopped fresh rosemary (or with pimenton, ground cumin or curry powder). Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until the edges are brown and crispy and the flesh is soft.
ROASTED ROOTS: Toss cubed winter squash and any combination of winter root vegetables – such as celery root, carrots, beets, sweet potatoes and red onions – with olive oil until well coated. Spread vegetables in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Season to taste. Bake at 400 degrees, turning occasionally with a spatula, until crispy outside and very soft inside, about 45 minutes.
BUTTERNUT SQUASH PIE
Note: This is Riverdog Farms co-owner Trini Campbell’s favorite pie. Use 3 eggs for a softer, more custardy filling, she says.
FLAKY PIE CRUST:
1¼ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup solid vegetable shortening
3 tablespoons ice water, or more
2 to 3 large eggs
2 cups freshly cooked butternut or buttercup squash, pureed
1½ cups light cream or evaporated milk
½ cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon salt
Whipped cream, optional
1. In a large bowl, mix the flour, sugar and salt. Cut in the shortening, until the fat is in pea-sized pieces. Drizzle in the ice water, mixing with a fork, until the dough sticks together when pressed. Form into a ball, then flatten into a disk and wrap tightly in plastic. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
2. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough and fit it into a 9-inch pie plate.
3. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Whisk 3 large eggs in a large bowl. Whisk in the squash, light cream, sugars, spices and salt.
4. Warm the pie crust in the oven until hot to the touch. Then pour in the squash mixture and bake until the center of the filling is set but quivery, like gelatin, 35 to 40 minutes.
6. Cool on a rack, then refrigerate for up to one day. Serve with whipped cream.
Adapted from “All New All Purpose Joy of Cooking” by Irma Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker and Ethan Becker (Scribners, 1997)
CURRIED COCONUT SQUASH SOUP
2 medium butternut squash (about 3 pounds), cubed
1 tablespoon Madras curry powder
2 14-ounce cans coconut milk
2 teaspoons grated ginger
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
¼ cup fresh lime juice
¼ cup finely chopped cilantro, divided
2 tablespoons scallions, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon jalapeno, thinly sliced
½ cup dry-roasted unsalted peanuts, chopped
1. Steam the squash until tender, about 25 minutes. Cool, then roughly mash.
2. Place the curry powder in a soup pot and warm over low heat until it changes color and smells fragrant.
3. Add the squash and coconut milk, and use an immersion blender to puree until smooth.
4. Add the ginger, soy and cayenne. Bring to a simmer, cover and let simmer for 10 minutes. Add the lime juice, half the cilantro, scallions and jalapeno and warm through. Taste and add salt, if needed.
5. Ladle into bowls and garnish with peanuts and chopped cilantro.
Adapted from “Fresh and Fast Vegetarian” by Marie Simmons (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 256 pages, $17.95)
GRAND CAFE DELICATA SQUASH SANDWICH
Servings: 2 to 3
Note: The roasted, marinated squash makes a great side dish, too.
3 to 4 delicata squash
½ cup maple syrup
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup sherry vinegar
2 cloves garlic, minced
Salt and pepper
2 cloves garlic
1 bunch sage leaves
1 bunch Italian parsley
¼ cup pistachios, toasted
¼ cup grated Parmesan
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup goat cheese
2 cups of the marinated delicata squash slices
Fresh arugula leaves
1. Cut the squash in half lengthwise, scrape out the seeds and cut the squash into ¼-inch thick slices. Place in a glass dish or zip-top bag.
2. Combine maple syrup, oil, vinegar, garlic and cayenne. Pour over the squash slices and marinate for half an hour.
3. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Arrange squash slices in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Season with salt and pepper. Bake 10 minutes or until crispy and tender.
4. For the pesto, place the garlic, sage, parsley, pistachios and cheese in the bowl of a food processor or blender. Finely chop by pulsing several times. Slowly add oil until the mixture is creamy.
5. To assemble sandwiches, slice baguette in half lengthwise. Spread goat cheese over the bottom of the baguette. Top with squash. Toast in a hot oven until the cheese is soft. Top with a handful of arugula. Spread the sage pesto on the top of the baguette. (Save any extra pesto in the refrigerator.) Cover the sandwich with the baguette top, slice and serve.
Alicia Jenish, Grand Cafe
DUNGENESS CRAB AND WINTER SQUASH CAKES
Servings: 8 as an appetizer, 4 as an entree
Note: Use a richly flavored, soft-textured squash, such as a kabocha, delicata or buttercup squash
1 pound crabmeat
¾ cup cooked and coarsely mashed winter squash
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 whole green onions, sliced thinly
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill
½ cup mayonnaise
2 large whole eggs
½ cup unbleached white flour
1 cup dry breadcrumbs
Salt and pepper to taste
Canola oil for frying
1. Pick through the crabmeat to make sure there are no stray shell bits.
2. In a large bowl, gently combine the crab, squash, mustard, onions, dill and ½ cup mayonnaise, or just enough to moisten. Do not mash, but combine evenly. Form into 8 thick, flat discs.
3. In a small, flat bowl or pie plate, whisk the eggs. Place the flour in a second bowl and season lightly with salt and pepper. Place the breadcrumbs in a third bowl and season lightly with salt and pepper.
4. Dip the crab cakes in the flour, then egg and finally coat with breadcrumbs.
5. In a heavy-bottom pan, heat about ½ cup of oil. Brown each cake for about 3 minutes on each side, until crisp and heated through. Repeat with the remaining crab cakes.
Jesse Cool, Flea Street Cafe