February 1, 2012

Chefs get creative with winter squashes

It's easier than you may think to break out of the soup-or-sweet-side-dish rut with the gourds.

By PAULA HAMILTON / McClatchy Newspapers

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.

squash tips
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Acorn squash, a dark bluish-green squash, may be the most common winter squash outside California.

Photos by McClatchy Newspapers

squash tips
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Butternut squash is particularly good in soups, stews and braised dishes.

Additional Photos Below

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.

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Additional Photos

squash tips
click image to enlarge

A turban-shaped squash, buttercup has a creamy, dark orange flesh and is consistently sweet and flavorful.

squash tips
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Elongated, with tender, pale yellow skin, the delicata squash has very sweet, pale orange flesh and an edible peel.


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