Get to know your squash options and choose the best for your winter dishes.
As fall moves into winter, I’ve been teaching classes on cooking winter vegetables, including winter squash. Even though kale and beets seem to grab all the headlines, winter squash is the most reliable of long-keeping winter vegetables.
In terms of New England sustainability, winter squash may be the most important vegetable we have: it’s easy to grow in this climate, easy to store, and one plant will feed one person for a full season.
There’s a fair amount of writing by colonists suggesting that the pumpkin (which is just another variety of winter squash) was considered “the meanest of God’s blessings.” It got those colonists through the long New England winters all right, but it did get tiresome and uninspiring. One poet wrote:
For pottage and puddings, custards and pies,
Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies.
We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon;
If it were not for pumpkins, we should be undoon.
When I teach about cooking with winter squash, I gather a lot of different varieties, then cook and purée the flesh. I leave the purées without adding flavor or seasoning, and my students and I taste them one at a time, comparing the flavor and texture.
The big surprise to my students is the acorn squash, its flesh drier, stringier, and blander than that of the other varieties. “I know!” I say. “It is my mission to see acorns lose their grip on their popularity.” And don’t get me started on the white (colored yellow) and golden (colored orange) acorn varieties. They are even more lacking in flavor.
If you are looking for an acorn alternative, sweet dumpling is your squash. It is sweet-fleshed with an edible skin and a good candidate for stuffing. It also makes a good purée.
Dark green buttercups are confusing, sometimes sporting a small light blue turban and sometimes not. Fans say buttercup never needs added sweetener, but I think maple syrup is always welcome. The size of buttercup isn’t ideal: one squash yields enough for only three people.
Butternut, according to the folks at Johnny’s Seeds, is the longest-keeping squash, and in my opinion, is the very best winter squash in terms of performance in the kitchen. It is easily peeled. Its long, seed-free neck gives you a nice piece of squash that can be easily grated raw and sautéed for a quick-cooking dish. It is also easily cubed for roasting and delicious when combined with cubed root vegetables in a mixed vegetable roast. The flesh makes a smooth purée.
Delicatas have edible skins, which makes them good for stuffing, slicing, and roasting, but the relatively small amount of flesh makes them a poor choice for puréeing.
Lovely blue hubbard squash makes the smoothest of winter squash purées and, in terms of flavor it is my favorite. Working against its popularity is its very hard shell. You can crack it open with an axe, drop it onto a paved driveway, or pound a cleaver through it with a rubber mallet (my preferred method). When I first started growing hubbards, I went for the full-size squash, and some weighed as much as 40 pounds. These days, I go for the baby hubbards, and I’ve noticed that farm stands have dropped the word “baby” from the name. Reverse supersizing?
Deeply orange colored red Kuri is a hubbard variant. It has a relative soft skin that can be peeled like a butternut, but the same delicious flavor. It is especially good for purées and soups.
So-called because its fibrous flesh resembles strands of pasta, spaghetti squash is too sweet to be enjoyed as a pasta alternative, but it is really good with garlic and cheese or cream. When it comes to cooking, the best thing about winter squash is you can’t over-cook them. If you over-steam and the flesh is watery, just drain in a fine-mesh strainer before or after puréeing. Bake halved and seeded squash at 350° in 1 inch of water for 45 to 90 minutes. Steam quartered and seeded pieces for about 15 minutes. Or roast peeled, diced cubes that have been slicked with a little oil at 425°F until lightly brown, 20 to 30 minutes.
Oh, and those purées we tasted in class? After trying each individually, I mix them together, add a fair amount of salt (very important to bring out flavor), some melted butter, and honey, maple syrup, or apple cider syrup. What a treat!