Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Winter Squash 101

By Chef Andrea

Butternut Squash
Winter squash…where do I start!?  Growing up we ate squash in basically one of two ways—pie or a simple puree with butter.  It really wasn’t one of my favored foods and I had no idea winter squash could be used in so many ways!  I also had no idea there were so many different kinds of winter squash!  In my world, I only knew buttercup (my mom’s favorite), crookneck (the giant ones my grandma grew to make pies), butternut and acorn (likely the two most well-known).  Now that I’ve expanded my culinary and agricultural boundaries, I realize the world of winter squash has so much more to offer, both in variety and culinary experiences.  So, if you’re in the group of folks who are yet to embrace winter squash, I encourage you to keep reading.  Trust me, there are so many ways to prepare squash, there have to be at least a few keepers for your recipe collection!

Black Futsu Pumpkin
Last week we officially finished our 2019 winter squash harvest!  Winter squash can easily be damaged by a frost, especially if the vines have started to die back, exposing the squash.  This year the squash were ready well ahead of the first frost and are now safely tucked away in one of our greenhouses for storage.  Over the next few months we’ll be packing a variety of different squash varieties in your boxes, each with different characteristics and attributes.  While there are hundreds of different types of winter squash, we have narrowed the selection to less than 10 categories.  We’re starting off the season with Delicata or Sugar Dumpling and Kabocha squash.  Over the next few months you’ll also receive several different types of butternut squash, spaghetti squash, festival, and the newest kid on the block, black futsu.

Spaghetti Squash
When the seed catalogs come in December, it’s easy to be wooed by all the different varieties.  As we make our selections we have several different criteria in mind.  First of all, we’ve trialed a lot of squash over the years so we tend to stick with some of our historically strong producers, ones that have disease resistance and are high yielding.  But those aren’t the only two qualities we look at.  Of course, it has to taste good!  We are looking for varieties that are both sweet and flavorful.  Spaghetti squash is really the only squash we grow that is not intended to be sweet, but we have chosen the variety we believe has the best flavor!  We also want to keep things interesting for you over the course of the final few months of our CSA season, so we try to grow squash that have different colors, shapes, textures and uses.  While we intend for you to (eventually) eat the winter squash, they can also add beauty to your home in the meantime!

Festival Squash
As we journey through the season, watch your What’s In the Box newsletter for more detailed information about the individual varieties of squash.  For now, I’m going to cover some basic information applicable to most varieties.  First, the ideal temperature for storing squash is between 45° and 55°F. This is a bit more chilly than most of your homes, so know that it’s ok to store them on your kitchen counter at a warmer temperature as long as you keep your eye on them. You do not want to store squash in the refrigerator or in an uninsulated garage where the temperatures could dip below 45°F once winter sets in. At temperatures less than 45°F squash is vulnerable to chill injury. You need to check in on your squash periodically.  If you notice any sort of a spot starting to form or any signs of deterioration, you need to intervene immediately. A small spot doesn’t mean the squash is bad or needs to be composted, rather it means you need to eat it right away! Just cut away the bad spot and use the rest. If you leave it unattended, the spot will continue to grow and consume your squash….which is what we do not want to happen! Even if you are not quite ready to eat the squash, I encourage you to cook it anyway. Winter squash is a great vegetable to cook in advance and freeze. It’s super quick and easy to pull precooked squash out of the freezer in the middle of the winter and heat it up to eat as a side dish or incorporate it into baked goods or other dishes. The main thing is, don’t let it go to waste! If I have a pile of squash on my counter, I like to bake a lot at one time…the oven is already hot, and if you’re going to make a mess it’s better to clean up just once!

Butterkin Squash
Before we officially move on from the topic of storage, it’s important to understand that not all winter squash are intended for long term storage.  There are some squash varieties that naturally have a thinner skin and/or higher sugar content.  Typically, these are the squash that will taste the best right out of the field.  However, these are not the varieties of squash we would expect to store well into the winter.  The thicker the skin, the greater protection for the squash.  We handle squash very carefully when we’re harvesting and packing it, taking care not to damage the skin which can become an entry point for bacteria and cause the squash to deteriorate.  But life happens and chances are your squash may get a bump along the way, which is why we encourage you to stay in tune with your squash!  Squash that are high in natural sugars are great, but typically don’t have as long of a life.  So that’s another consideration to keep in mind when storing squash.  Finally, the storage potential of squash is directly related to field conditions.  If we’ve had a wet, cold season and there is leaf disease in the field, the squash are generally more vulnerable to decay in storage and won’t last as long.  In other years that are more dry and we see less disease pressure, we see very little decay in storage and can often store squash until the next spring!

Orange Kabocha Squash
Now that you know how to store squash, lets talk about eating it!  Winter squash is easy to cook and you have several options. The method I employ most frequently is to simply cut the squash in half, scrape out the seed cavity, and bake it.  I place it, cut side down, in a baking dish and add a little bit of water to the pan, enough to cover the bottom of the pan and come up about ¼-½ an inch on the squash. I bake it in the oven at about 350°F until it is tender when poked with a fork. Once tender, I remove them from the oven and flip them over so the cut side is up. I allow them to rest until they are cool enough to handle, then scoop out the flesh. I usually puree the flesh in a food processor so it is smooth.  Now it’s ready for use in soups, desserts, etc.  This is the easiest method, but you don’t always want puree, sometimes you want chunks or pieces to work with.  Most winter squash needs to be peeled, but there are some varieties with thinner skin that can be eaten.  The Delicata and kabocha squash we’re delivering this week are two varieties that have thinner skin and many people choose not to peel them.  It’s totally up to you! Where I’m going is that squash can be cut into chunks or smaller pieces to be roasted, boiled, steamed, baked or otherwise incorporated into dishes, etc.  I also want to mention that the seeds of many varieties are also edible!  Typically the smaller squash have more tender seeds, whereas kabocha seeds generally have a thicker skin and are not as tasty.   Once you scoop them out, rinse them to remove any flesh, then dry them in a dehydrator or just air dry.  After they are dried, you can toast them as you would toast any other nut or seed either in a hot pan on the stove top or in the oven.

Tetsukabuto Squash
As with many different vegetables, I always like to look around the world to see how different cultures use squash.  Squash is one of those vegetables that is found worldwide, so there are a lot of different possibilities to explore!  I’m fascinated by Japanese culture and was interested to find out that two of our new squash trials this year are actually varieties originating in Japan.  The Black Futsu Pumpkin is a Japanese heirloom variety and Tetsukabuto means “steele helmet” in Japanese.  It was touted as the “squash to survive the apocalypse” by the seed catalog, which is another way of indicating that it has the potential to be stored for a really long time!  In Japan, kabocha squash in particular is a common food and is often eaten as a side dish.  It is also prepared with tempura.  You’ll also find winter squash in Asian cuisine such as Thai curries and stir-fries.  It’s also a part of the diets of different European countries where it is used to make gratins, silky soups, souffles, desserts and more.  Winter squash is also part of Middle Eastern cultures, showing up in Arabic stews and preparations alongside ingredients such as lamb, tahini, and pomegranate.

Heart of Gold Squash
Winter squash can be incorporated into any meal of the day!  Use it to make frittatas, quiche and breakfast casseroles or stir squash puree into oatmeal or even a breakfast smoothie! You can incorporate winter squash into desserts such as the flan recipe featured in our vegetable feature about kabocha squash.  Some varieties are also delicious to use for making cheesecake, breads, cookies, cakes, pies and more.  Roasted squash can become a topping for pizza, or use it to make quesadillas and pasta dishes.  Don’t be afraid to incorporate squash into preparations like risotto, croquettes, fritters and dumplings.

If you ever find yourself wondering what to do with winter squash and can’t find ANYTHING to make with it, give me a call or send me an email.  I’m certain I can find something you can make with it!

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