Chez Panisse Vegetables
(HarperCollins; US: Mar 1996)
The Cooking of Southwest France: Recipes from France's Magnificent Rustic Cuisine
(John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; US: Sep 2005)
Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone
(Crown; US: Nov 2007)
Simple French Food
(John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; US: Jun 1992)
It’s that time of year, when the leaves turn, and the weather becomes even more unpredictable: blistering heat followed by temperate days edged with a warning chill. The sunlight thins, slants, and fades by 5PM. Summer’s vegetable bounty has surrendered to the first of winter’s staples: greens, radishes, turnips, and hard or winter squashes. Bluish Kabochas and Hubbards, orange Acorn squash splotched with green, red Kuris, ridged yellow Delicatas streaked greeny orange. Stringy Spaghetti squash, good for so little, and piles of pumpkins, from decorative ones no larger than kittens to monsters comparable to SUVs.
If you are a politically correct locavore, winter squash is unavoidable.
Unhappily, it’s easy to get sick of eating them.
Then again, and I know I harp on this, gas prices hit the $5-per- gallon mark where I live, and threaten to go higher. Good locavores, or even those who just cannot afford rising fuel costs and with them, soaring food prices, must consider this when facing yet another night of squash. Winter squash is filling, cheap, and nourishing. Treated properly, it even tastes good.
Few vegetables—technically, the squash family, both winter and summer, are actually fruits of the Cucurbitaceae family—come with the history winter squashes do. Carrots and onions don’t appear in ancient lore. Eve was not tempted by an inviting watercress leaf. Even the heirloom tomato was long thought poisonous, useful only for tossing by unhappy crowds.
In the United Kingdom, and later, the United States, the carved pumpkin became associated with Halloween. “Halloween” is a corruption (or variation, if you will) of the Catholic All Hallows Eve, a time of honoring the saints. All Hallow’s Eve, in turn, is the Christianized form of the Celtic holiday Samhain, officially denoting summer’s close. During Samhain, animals were brought in from pasture to barns and winter food supplies were laid in.
It was felt the Gods were closer to mortals at this time and required appeasement, which the Celts dealt with by making offerings of foods to Druids. Irish children carved Jack O’ Lanterns not out of pumpkins, but turnips, intended to stave off an ever-wandering spirit named Jack, who, stuck between Heaven and Hell, carried a carved turnip lit from within by an ember given him by the devil. When famine brought droves of Irish stateside, they turned to carving the more readily available native pumpkin.
(Thanks to Halloweenishere.com for assistance with historical aspects of Samhain and vegetable carving.)
If we allow our minds to wander, we realize Samhain and its close friend and associate, the winter squash—aka the pumpkin—lead to thoughts of the identically named metal band, fronted by Glenn Danzig. Few are the vegetables that meander toward metal, offering the pumpkin a dual if dubious place in the edible hierarchy
Free association aside, there is the question of what to do with these hard-shelled behemoths, particularly if, like me, you belong to a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, wherein you receive a weekly box filled with organic fruits and vegetables. While some CSA’s offer subscribers choices, others, like mine, are absolutely seasonal, meaning you get what’s available. That means summer’s boxes burst with tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, and pungent basil, while fall and winter boxes are certain to contain one (sometimes two) winter squashes until the end of April.
Winter squashes keep well on a countertop or the fridge, though in Chez Panisse Vegetables, Alice Waters advises against the fridge, suggesting a 50-60 degree Fahrenheit (10-15 degrees Celsius) storage area. I have no such spot, and find refrigeration prevents the soft spots and rot that inevitably occur when I leave squash on the countertop. Besides, the longer you keep squash, the likelier you are to amass a daunting pile. Better to find a few ways of integrating this omnipresent veggie into your winter diet.
A quick word about squash preparation. Many winter squash recipes call for peeling and cubing the raw beast. While the end result is lovely, unless your knives are dangerously sharp and your hands pain-free, trimming raw winter squash can be both dangerous and agonizing. If your knife is dull, it’s more likely to slip, causing a nasty cut. If you spend too much time at the keyboard and suffer one of the many resulting hand/wrist/ arm afflictions, prepping raw winter squash is a pure hell you should reserve only for special occasions, when you are certain of fine wines, narcotics, or a visiting masseuse to ease the pain.
The rest of the time—that is, daily life—it is wiser to pierce your squash a few times with a knife, tuck it in a baking dish with about one half-inch of water, and pop it into a 350 F/175C oven. Depending on the squash’s size, cooking time will range from an hour to 90 minutes, at which point it will emerge nicely malleable. Whether or not you still require fine wines, narcotics, or massage is another story.
Random food fact: the jury is out on whether or not winter squash is safe to can. Canning recipes exist, but it’s possible that not even pressure canners fully penetrate this very dense vegetable. Then again, winter squash has a long season and lacks the allure of tomatoes. Why bother canning it?
Here are a few ways to enjoy winter squash without inflicting pain or food poisoning.
Plain Old Squash: roast as mentioned above. Allow it to cool enough to halve, then scoop out the seeds and stringy squash gunk with a large metal spoon. If your squash is organic, the peel is edible. Add olive oil or butter, salt, and pepper. Some people sweeten squash with brown sugar or maple syrup. I am not one of those people.
Puréed Squash: prepare squash as above, mash with whatever mashing implement you have handy, then add as much butter and salt as your conscience allows.
Squash Patties: call them croquettes if you prefer. This practical method of using leftovers is the little black dress of squash recipes: it matches with anything. Pour some olive, peanut, or sesame oil into a nonstick skillet and heat gently. Mash your leftover squash in a bowl, removing any remaining peel. Add seasonings of your choice: salt, pepper, cumin, crushed coriander seed, hot pepper flakes, some minced garlic or ginger: whatever works. Mix well with a spoon or your hands, forming into patties. I make mine hamburger-sized, but you can join the slider craze and make yours smaller. Fry on both sides until nicely browned. (Read about squash muffins or squash bread here on PopMatters.)
Squash soup: squash lends itself brilliantly to soups, ranging from mild preparations of squash simmered in water or broth with a few vegetables to Paula Wolfert’s Autumn Squash Soup with Country Ham and Garlic Croutes, located in Paula Wolfert’s majestic The Cooking of Southwest France. This soup calls for a roasted squash, onions, potatoes, garlic, chicken stock, and heavy cream. The croutes, or croutons, require a baguette sautéed in either duck fat or olive oil with sliced ham or proscuitto.
Unsurprisingly, a soup calling for duck fat, heavy cream, and the pricier parts of pig is delicious. It also has millions of calories unless consumed in moderation, which is difficult when the steaming bowl is set before you, redolent of duck fat, the croutes bobbing atop the soup whispering “French paradox, my ass.” Still, once or twice a year it is a truly magnificent dish.
Provençal Winter Squash Gratin: let’s say you have an occasion—a birth, an engagement, a holiday of some kind. You’ve laid in a nice supply of alcohol and (legally acquired) painkillers. Your brother is dating a masseuse, whom you’ve invited. Now is the time to prepare Provençal Winter Squash Gratin, which comes from Deborah Madison’s aptly titled Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.
Madison in turn cites Richard Olney and James Beard’s Simple French Food. This is a recipe whose simplicity defies the outcome. Preheat your oven to 325 F/160C. Oil a gratin or shallow baking dish with olive oil. Now peel and cut a butternut squash into cubes as small as you can stand. Put these in your gratin dish with five peeled, chopped garlic cloves, chopped parsley (thyme makes a nice substitute), salt, pepper, and a shake of flour. Mix with your hands to ensure everything is lightly coated with the oil, then bake for two hours. This is so good that it’s almost worth it even if all you have to soothe your hands is cheap plonk and generic ibuprofen.
And there you have it. We may be wondering why we’re all together in this handbasket, but we might as well enjoy the journey. Thoughtfully prepared foods in season are one way of doing so, a small hedge against the dark half of the year.