November 6, 2013

Soup to Nuts: It's winter squash weather

The gourds of autumn, in all their crazy-quilt colors and endearingly lumpy shapes, are rumbling in at your local farm and farmers market.

By Meredith Goad mgoad@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

 

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A variety of squash is displayed at the Portland Farmers Market. From bottom, clockwise, sugar dumpling, acorn, delicata and golden acorn.

Photos by John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Growers say that a lot of squash varieties taste better now than when they were freshly harvested in September.

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Every year cooks flock to Intervale Farm in New Gloucester in search of their favorite variety of squash.

Some people crave an Eclipse, a type of buttercup squash that is dry and flaky and requires the addition of a lot of butter – which is maybe why it’s so popular, says Jan Wilcox, whose family owns the farm.

“This Cambodian woman comes every year looking for a (Japanese) variety called Tetsukabuto that she uses in her Asian recipes because it’s got this particular sticky texture that she likes,” Wilcox said. “It’s sweet and sticky. It’s a green squash that looks like a cannonball.”

Wilcox plants 130 varieties of Cucurbita every year, the genus that encompasses pumpkins, squash and gourds. Her harvest includes lots of things you’ve likely never heard of, such as the bumpy, blue-green Marina Di Chioggia (an Italian heirloom seaside pumpkin that’s delicious in gnocchi and ravioli) and the soup-friendly Rouge Vif D’Etampes, also known as Cinderella pumpkin.

Wilcox, a geophysicist-turned-squash grower, seemed like a good person to go to for lessons on winter squash and how to use it. I also tapped Carolyn Snell of Snell Family Farm in Buxton and Mary Ellen Chadd of Green Spark Farm in Cape Elizabeth for their tips on how to choose squash, cook it, store it and prepare it.

Winter squash varieties may look wildly different on the outside, but inside they typically have flesh that ranges from a deep yellow to a deep orange, an indicator that they contain a lot of beta carotene. They are a good source of fiber, as well as vitamin A, potassium and other nutrients.

While the rarer varieties of winter squash that some farmers are selling these days are interesting, their availability is limited – Wilcox has already sold out – so I’ve focused on five of the more common types you’re likely to find at the farmers market, farm stands or the grocery store.

While winter squash is available in Maine September through February, the best time to eat it is now.

“It’s good to eat a lot of squash in November and December,” Snell said. “There will be more in January and February too, but it doesn’t keep that well late in the year. So it’s good to eat it now and think of it as a late fall kind of squash rather than for all winter long. Sometimes you wait until late, late in the winter and a lot of the local squash has already been sold, and you think, ‘OK, I’m eating with the seasons,’ but really maybe that squash came from far away to be available then.”

But it’s not just an issue of buying local. A lot of squash just tastes better now because it’s sweeter than when it was harvested.

“As squash stores and cures, the starches turn to sugar, so it tends to get a little sweeter around now, rather than Labor Day time,” Snell explained. “But as such, they also get a little wetter because the starches aren’t keeping them as dry. So for example, buttercup, which is really dry earlier in the season, starts to get a little bit wetter as it gets closer to Thanksgiving.”

TIPS ON CHOOSING WINTER SQUASH

n The squash should feel hard with no soft spots. It should feel heavy for its size.

n Pick up the squash and look it over, especially the sweeter varieties, like buttercup, because they don’t store as well. On green squash like acorn and buttercup, search for a yellow or orange spot where the squash has been lying in the field. That’s a good indication that it’s ripe. The darker the orange color, the riper the squash.

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