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.

n But that doesn’t work every time because sometimes squash grows higher up on the stem and never touches the ground. This is particularly true for acorn and delicata squash. So check the stem as well. As a squash ripens, the stem may change from green to a brownish or whitish color.

n Generally speaking, Wilcox says, bigger is better because a big squash is more mature. But not always. A variety of acorn squash called Honey Bear is smaller than another acorn variety called Jet, but the Honey Bear is sweeter. So this rule works best within varieties.

COOKING TIPS

Winter squash has thick skin that can be difficult, even dangerous, to peel. There are a couple of ways to deal with this. One is to just throw the squash into the oven for a few minutes and cook it long enough for the skin to soften.

You can also just cook it whole, or cut it in half, and then scoop out the flesh when it’s done. “You actually get more flesh that way,” Snell says.

Just be sure if you cook the squash whole to stab it with a knife a few times before putting it in the oven so you don’t have a squash explosion.

WHAT ABOUT STORAGE?

It’s better not to store your winter squash in the fridge, Snell said. The optimal storage temperature is 50 to 60 degrees, so a hallway that’s away from heat sources but doesn’t get too cold will do.

Root cellars are fine, but the cellar temperature should be closer to 50 than to 40.

BUTTERNUT SQUASH

Butternut squash is one of the more popular, and versatile, kinds of winter squash. It’s most often made into a delicious, creamy soup.

“I like squash apple soup with maple in it,” Snell said. “That makes it more sweet. I also like curried squash soup. There’s a lot of directions you can go with that.”

Butternut squash makes a good pie, Wilcox said, and it’s great in chili. Just dice it and throw it in the chili about an hour before it’s done. It adds color and won’t turn to mush.

The Snells have a recipe for squash lasagna on their website (go to snellfamilyfarm.com, then click on recipes) that uses leftover squash instead of ricotta and an alfredo sauce instead of tomato sauce. (Buttercup or hubbard works well in addition to butternut, but you might need to add more butter or stock to the buttercup squash to get it the right consistency.)

“People also use butternut squash for filling raviolis,” Snell said. “We sell butternut and hubbard to Ribollita, and they make their famous ravioli with that.”

Snell said a variety of butternut squash called Ultra Butternut that has a long neck and a lot of flesh is good for making soup for a crowd or a lot of raviolis.

Finally, Snell swears by using butternut squash in burritos. She chunks the squash and roasts it, then fries it on the stovetop to get the edges crispy in oil. Add cumin or other spices, then mix the squash with meat or peppers, mushrooms and beans. Butternut squash can also be used as a substitute for refried beans.

ACORN SQUASH

Snell calls acorn squash the “consolation prize squash.”

“Acorn’s not my favorite because it’s not as sweet,” she said. “I feel like almost everything you could do with acorn you can do with delicata, and it’s just sweeter.”

One way she does like to prepare it is cutting it in half, then slicing it into thin crescent shapes. Toss the slices in olive oil, then roast them until they develop a nice crust.

“I think that’s pretty beautiful and also tasty to have as a side dish,” Snell said.

Acorn squash is dry but doesn’t contain as many sugars, which is why it tastes so good with maple syrup and brown sugar. Indeed, this is the way most people prepare it – cut it in half, add some brown sugar and syrup, maybe a little cinnamon, and just let it roast until it’s tender.

You can also skip the sweeteners and stuff it with sausage, onion and mushrooms, cranberries and apples, or with mushrooms and wild rice.

I’ve found when making stuffed acorn squash that adding a little apple cider to the stuffing helps boost the flavor and retain moisture.

“I like to use leftover acorn or delicata in frittatas or burritos,” said Mary Ellen Chadd of Green Spark Farm. “It makes a wonderful sweet flavor that pairs well with cheese or beans and salsa.”

DELICATA

Delicata has a texture similar to an acorn squash, meaning it’s a little dry, but that also means it will hold its shape well.

“I think the delicata is the one you don’t have to do anything to,” Wilcox said. “It’s like the sweet potato squash. It’s great because I like to not add any fat or sugar to my food, so I can have a delicata. It cooks up quickly, easily. You can even eat the skin if you want.”

If you’re going to eat the skin, be sure to wash it first.

For minimalist cooking, just cut the squash in half lengthwise, scrape out the seeds and roast it with butter and brown sugar, or with olive oil, salt and pepper. Or dice it with the skin still on and add it to a roasting pan full of other cut vegetables. (One of my favorite things to do in fall is to cut up bell peppers, onions, squash, rainbow carrots and any other veggies I have in the fridge, toss them in olive oil and a little salt and pepper, and roast them until they get a slight char. Delicious.)

Don’t undercook the squash or it won’t bring out the sweetness. “And if you burn it, just call it roasted, right?” said Wilcox, laughing. “That’s what I do.”

SPAGHETTI SQUASH

Spaghetti squash has gained newfound popularity among people who are watching their intake of carbs. They use the stringy flesh of spaghetti squash like pasta, often simply pouring a spaghetti sauce over it to make a meal.

Cook the squash whole and scrape the flesh out with a fork.Try it with some butter, Parmesan, salt and pepper as a side dish. Wilcox likes it with olive oil, garlic pepper, minced garlic and feta cheese.

Unless you’re serving a big crowd, Snell recommends trying two smaller varieties of spaghetti squash, Small Wonder and Orangetti, which are grapefruit-sized and make good single servings.

“A lot of the traditional spaghetti squash is just too big,” she said.

BUTTERCUP

Buttercup squash is related to turban squash, those big, orange-red squash you see at the market that look like they’re wearing a hat. Buttercups are smaller and dark green, sometimes with lighter green streaks on the rind.

Buttercups are a good all-around squash with a sweet flesh that’s good in soups or for eating with minimal intervention – some butter, salt and cinnamon, and maybe a little maple syrup for a little flavor boost.

Snell recommended using it in pies – it’s a lot sweeter than pumpkin – as well as in burritos and in her squash lasagna recipe.

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

mgoad@pressherald.com

Twitter: Meredithgoad

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