Winter Squash: New Faces In The Pumpkin Patch

An assortment of winter squash on a candlelit dinner table i i
David Deutsch for NPR
An assortment of winter squash on a candlelit dinner table
David Deutsch for NPR

By this fall, I couldn't face another bowl of butternut squash soup. For the past several years, it's seemed to be the first course at all restaurants, dinner parties and prepared food markets. Butternut squash is good, and it makes delicious soup, but enough already. Surely there is more to squash.

Then I began seeing them — at farmers markets, specialty stores, regular old supermarkets. Squash in all shapes, sizes and colors with exotic names and intriguing possibilities.

Move aside butternut and acorn. Make way for kabocha and jarrahdale. Squash is the latest "it" fruit. We've gotten used to heirloom tomatoes and antique apples. Now there is an earth-toned rainbow of winter squash. Old American varieties have been reintroduced and others imported from Europe and Asia.

While summer squash are eaten when immature, winter squash are left to fully ripen on the vine. Their firm, dry texture makes them best when fully cooked. They also have hard rinds, so they can be stored over the winter in a cool, dry place.

About The Author

Bonny Wolf is Kitchen Window's contributing editor, a commentator on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday and regular contributor to the Washington Post food section. She is the author of Talking with My Mouth Full: Crab Cakes, Bundt Cakes and Other Kitchen Stories (St. Martins 2006), and is working on a book about the foods of Maryland's Eastern Shore. More information is available at bonnywolf.com.

Depending on the variety, the flesh of a squash lies on a spectrum from pale yellow to dark orange and is firmer than that of summer squash, so it must be cooked longer. Winter squash can be big or small, smooth-skinned or covered in warts, long and thin or wide and squat. Skin can be pale blue, red-orange, forest green, striped or mottled.

As Halloween nears, inquiring minds want to know — is a squash a pumpkin (or a gourd for that matter)? "The genetic history of the pumpkin is so intertwined with the squash and the gourd that it's sometimes difficult to tell them apart," according to Texas A&M University's horticulture website. "Generally speaking, a pumpkin is something you carve, a squash is something you cook and a gourd is something you look at." Except when they're not.

While squashes, gourds and pumpkins are all in the same genetic family, there are several species with different sizes, colors, textures and stems.

The big orange pumpkins with thick woody stems patiently waiting in fields to become jack o' lanterns are members of the pepo species. Keep them on the porch, not in the kitchen. They don't make good eating, although their cousin the Connecticut field pumpkin is pretty good for pies. Gourds also are in this group (don't eat them), as are some summer squash and zucchini.

Squash of the maxima species have yellower skin and softer stems. Most winter squash are in this category — Hubbard, banana, buttercup, turban and others.

Varieties in the moshata species are usually long and oblong and have tan rather than orange skin. Think butternut. Much so-called "canned pumpkin" is really made from squash in this group.

Both Italian and French cuisines are full of recipes for zucca and potiron — which loosely translates as pumpkin. The word "pumpkin," in fact, comes from the old French pompion, meaning "cooked by the sun," or ripe. Whatever they're called, they were unknown in Europe until after Columbus met the peoples of the Americas, who had been eating squash/pumpkins for thousands of years.

The word "squash" comes from a Native American word meaning "eaten raw." For Native Americans of the Eastern Woodlands, squash was one of the three sisters — the other two being corn and beans. The corn provides a climbing stalk for the beans that put nitrogen in the soil to nourish the corn. The squash leaves provide shade for the shallow roots of the corn.

It takes time to figure out what to do with which squash, but it's fun to experiment. In the meantime, they're beautiful to look at piled on the kitchen counter in the autumn light — even the butternut.


A Squash Sampler

This is by no means a complete list. These are just some of the squashes now showing up at markets — indoors and out. There are many more.

How To Handle Squash

Selecting

  • Winter squash is prone to decay, so look at each one carefully before committing. Avoid any with soft spots or mold.
  • Choose squash that are heavy for their size and have dull, not shiny, rinds. The rinds should be firm. Soft rinds may mean a watery, flavorless squash. The heavier they are, the moister and tastier they are.

Storing

  • Winter squashes can be stored for up to six months. They should be kept away from direct exposure to light and extremes of temperature — hot and cold. And they like good ventilation.
  • If they're being used for decoration, they should be eaten within a week or two or they'll dry out.
  • Cut squash can be wrapped and refrigerated for a few days.

Cooking

  • After washing the squash rind, cut in half and remove the seeds and stringy matter in the cavity. You may set aside the seeds to roast later. Most squash are then peeled and cut in chunks to be steamed or roasted.
  • Winter squashes can be steamed, roasted or baked. They can be used in breads, pies and cakes or cooked in stews and soups.
  • A one-pound squash will provide about two servings after the rind and seeds are removed.
  • Cutting a big squash can take muscle. A heavy-duty knife or a cleaver will help. Or, bake the whole squash until it begins to soften, then cut.

Acorn squash are familiar to most Americans. They usually have dark-green, smooth skins but also come in orange, orange and green and one that looks like a splatter painting with a white, green and orange palette. Acorn squash are a little bland so are often sweetened with brown sugar or maple syrup.

Buttercup is one of my new enthusiasms. It was developed in 1932 at North Dakota Agricultural College, and many consider it an almost-perfect winter squash. The skin is a dark forest green, and it has a distinctive protrusion on the bottom. The orange flesh becomes creamy and sweet when cooked.

Butternut, we know: It has a long straight neck and a round bottom that holds the seeds. The skin is a pale peachy tan. There's a reason butternut is so popular. It's easy to peel and has a wonderful flavor. It's a great all-purpose squash.

Calabaza are commonly used in Central and South America, as well as in the Caribbean. They have a green mottled skin and bright orange flesh that is sweet and moist. Because they run large, they are often sold in cut pieces.

Cinderella pumpkins are French heirloom pumpkins that look like Cinderella's coach to the ball. They're bright orange and slightly flattened. In France, where they're called rouge d'etampes, they're often used as a tureen for a wonderful cheesy dish.

Delicatas are whitish and oblong with dark green (and sometimes orange) stripes. They're small (about one pound) early in the season and get much larger as the season progresses. They look a little like pale, fat cucumbers. Their skin is thin and even edible. The pale yellow flesh has a slight corn flavor. They make good shallow dishes. Cut in half lengthwise, bake and serve with lime chili butter, for example.

Hubbard squash (also called New England blue) are gray-blue with deep orange flesh reminiscent of a sweet potato. They're also huge: perfect for restaurants or sharing with friends.

Jarrahdale looks like a big blue pumpkin. Originally from Australia, it has a light orange, delicate flesh and a good texture for purees.

Kabocha squash sometimes is called Japanese pumpkin in recognition of its origins. Kabochas have dark green skin and a slightly flattened look. They also have brilliant flavor. Their dark orange flesh is dense and sweet.

Red Kuri squash are pear-shaped with reddish-orange wrinkly skin. The flesh is not fibrous and has a sweet flavor. This is a nice, versatile squash.

Spaghetti squash have pale yellow skin and such coarse flesh that when cooked, it can be pulled into long strands that resemble spaghetti. They're bland, but if the sauce is good enough, you get all of the nutrients of the squash and the illusion that you're indulging in pasta. If cooking spaghetti squash in the oven, puncture a few times so it won't explode.

Sweet Dumpling squash is pretty, small, round and looks like a little pumpkin. The rind is ivory colored with a little green in the grooves. The flesh is a pale yellow, smooth and dry, like a potato, with medium sweetness.

Turban squash look like, well, turbans. They're multicolored in shades of orange and green and make nice little soup tureens or decorations. They're better to look at than eat, though.

Baked Onions With Buttercup Squash Filling

This beautiful dish can be served as part of an antipasto table or as a side dish with roasts. Red onions turn purple after cooking and are especially striking filled with orange squash — perfect for Halloween. You can substitute any onion. This recipe is adapted from Lidia's Table by Lidia Bastianich (William Morrow 1998). It looks way more complicated than it actually is.

Baked Onions With Buttercup Squash Filling
David Deutsch for NPR

Makes 6 servings

For The Onions

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons coarse salt, plus more for the filling

6 medium-sized (about 3 1/2 inches in diameter) red onions

1 pound peeled and seeded buttercup squash (or substitute calabaza or butternut)

1/4 cup finely diced mostarda di Cremona with syrup*

1/4 cup fine plain dry bread crumbs

1 large egg

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Freshly ground pepper

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

6 amaretti cookies finely crumbled (about 1/4 cup)*

For The Sauce

1 cup heavy cream

1 cup chicken broth

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan

1/2 cup chopped fresh chives

*Mostarda di Cremona are candied fruits preserved in a white wine and honey syrup, highly flavored with spices and mustard. Both the mostarda and the amaretti are available at Italian markets, specialty stores and online.

Fill a 4- to 5-quart pot halfway full of water. Add vinegar and 2 tablespoons salt. Bring to a boil.

Meanwhile, peel the onions, leaving them whole, the root ends intact.

Add the onions to the water, cover the pot and cook until the onions are half-cooked — a paring knife inserted into an onion should meet only a little resistance — about 25 minutes. Don't overcook, or they will fall apart during stuffing and further cooking. Drain the onions and let stand until cool enough to handle.

While onions are cooling, in a large saucepan of boiling salted water, cook the squash until thoroughly tender, about 10 minutes. Drain well.

Using a food mill fitted with the fine disc (or a food processor or blender), puree the squash into a large mixing bowl. There should be about 2 cups. Measure one-third of the squash and set aside.

To the remaining squash, add the mostarda and syrup, bread crumbs, egg and nutmeg. Mix well and season to taste with salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Cut about 1/2 inch off the top — opposite the root end — of each onion. Carefully remove the center of each, leaving two or three outer layers intact for filling. To do this, hold the onion securely in one hand and scoop underneath the sections you want to remove with a soup spoon. Rotate the inner sections to free them.

Spoon the seasoned squash mixture into the onions.

In a small bowl, stir 2 tablespoons melted butter and the crumbled cookies together until blended and spoon the mixture over the onions. Brush an 11-by-8-inch baking dish with 1 tablespoon of the remaining butter and place the onions in the dish. Bake until onions and filling are browned, about 40 minutes.

While the onions are baking, in a medium-sized saucepan, combine the reserved squash puree, the cream and chicken stock. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Adjust the heat to a gentle boil and cook until the sauce is syrupy, about 10 minutes. Stir in the grated cheese and bring back to a boil

To serve, divide the sauce among 6 serving plates. Place onions over the sauce and sprinkle with chives. Serve immediately.

Citrouille Farcie (Stuffed Pumpkin)

This incredibly dramatic French dish is perfect for a Halloween party. This recipe is adapted from one I got from Patricia Deshaies Britton, a French woman now living in the U.S. The recipe is from the southwest of France. "It's easy, friendly and fun with a nice table and good company," she says. Julia Child has a similar recipe she calls le potiron tout rond. If you have any cut up pumpkin lying around, add to the mix.

Citrouille Farcie (Stuffed Pumpkin) i i
David Deutsch for NPR
Citrouille Farcie (Stuffed Pumpkin)
David Deutsch for NPR

Makes 10 to 12 servings as side dish

1 1/2 cups fresh white bread crumbs

4 to 6 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 pound bacon

1 Cinderella pumpkin

1 tablespoon soft butter

Salt, to taste

8 ounces gruyere, coarsely grated

1/2 pound creme fraiche (or 1 cup heavy cream)

Freshly grated nutmeg, to taste

Fresh thyme leaves, to taste

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Tear bread into small pieces, place on jellyroll pan and sprinkle with minced garlic. Heat in oven for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until dried.

Meanwhile, cut bacon into dice and fry until crisp. Remove from grease with a slotted spoon and set aside on paper towel-lined tray.

After bread is toasted, remove and turn oven up to 400 degrees.

Citrouille Farcie (Stuffed Pumpkin)
David Deutsch for NPR

With a sturdy knife, cut a cover off the pumpkin about 4 inches in diameter. Hold the knife at an angle while cutting. Scoop out the seeds and strings and either set aside to roast later or throw away (into your compost heap, of course.)

Butter the inside of the pumpkin and the underside of the lid with the softened butter. Season the inside of the pumpkin with salt.

Place the pumpkin on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. (An alternative is to place the pumpkin in a pot or tureen in case it collapses. I lived dangerously.)

Inside the pumpkin, layer bread, bacon, cheese, creme fraiche or cream and sprinkle with salt, pepper, nutmeg and thyme. Repeat until pumpkin is full. Replace top on pumpkin and place in oven.

Cook for 1 1/2 hours or until the pumpkin begins to soften on the outside and the filling begins to bubble. Turn tray once or twice during cooking.

Lower heat to 350 degrees and cook 1/2 hour more, until the pumpkin is tender but still holds its shape. If it's getting too brown, cover it loosely with foil.

The pumpkin may be kept warm in a 200-degree oven for 1/2 hour. It does, however, stay hot for a very long time.

To serve, remove cover and dip into the pumpkin with a long-handled spoon, scraping the flesh off the pumpkin's bottom and sides for each serving.

Squash Stew With Lamb

Calabaza or buttercup squash go beautifully with ground lamb in this homey stew, adapted from Barbara Kafka's Vegetable Love (Artisan 2005). Serve over rice or orzo.

Squash Stew With Lamb i i
David Deutsch for NPR
Squash Stew With Lamb
David Deutsch for NPR

Makes 4 cups

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice (about 1 cup)

1/2 pound extra-lean ground lamb

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 1/2 pounds squash, peeled, seeded and fibers removed, cut into 3/4- to 1-inch cubes

1 1/2 tablespoons dried Mediterranean oregano

1 teaspoon coarse salt, or to taste

1/3 cup plum tomato puree or diced tomatoes

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Heat olive oil in a large saucepan. Add the onion and cook over medium-low heat 2 to 3 minutes, or until translucent. Add the lamb, breaking it up with a wooden spoon. Cook for 5 minutes, or until the meat has lost most of its raw color. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Add the squash, oregano and salt. Stir and cook for 2 minutes. Pour in 1/4 cup water and stir. Cover, reduce the heat and simmer 15 minutes.

Add the tomatoes. (If not serving immediately, turn off the heat and reheat just before serving.) Cook, uncovered, at a low boil for about 5 minutes, until the liquid reduces and the squash is meltingly tender. Stir in the lemon juice and salt and pepper as needed.

Squash Risotto

This is a wonderful fall dish, adapted from Lidia's Table by Lidia Bastianich (William Morrow 1998). I had some already cut squash of two varieties — yellow and orange — and used them both. Very colorful. You could also add diced apples and a little cinnamon.

Squash Risotto i i
David Deutsch for NPR
Squash Risotto
David Deutsch for NPR

Makes 6 servings

1 pound buttercup, butternut or calabaza squash (or other medium-dry squash), peeled, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch cubes

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup minced onions

2 tablespoons minced shallots

2 cups Arborio or Carnaroli rice

1/2 cup dry white wine

6 1/2 cups hot chicken broth

1/2 teaspoon salt, or as needed

1/2 cup chopped scallions (about 6)

Pinch freshly grated nutmeg

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut in small pieces

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Steam squash until tender but firm, about 10 minutes. Transfer half to a food processor or blender and process until smooth. Scrape out the puree into a small bowl. Set puree and diced squash aside.

In a heavy, wide 3- to 4-quart casserole dish or pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Cook the onions and shallots until golden, stirring often, about 8 minutes.  Add the rice and stir to coat with the oil. Toast the rice until the edges become translucent, 1 to 2 minutes.

Pour in the wine and stir well until evaporated. Add 1/2 cup of the hot broth and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring constantly, until all of the broth has been absorbed.

Add the squash puree, diced squash and scallions. Continue to add hot broth in small batches — just enough to completely moisten the rice — and cook until each addition has been absorbed. Stir constantly and adjust the level of heat so the rice is simmering very gently until the mixture is creamy but al dente. This should take 15 to 20 minutes from the first addition of stock.

Remove from heat. Beat in the butter until melted, then the cheese. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper, if needed.

Serve immediately.

Kuri With Cumin, Raisins And Almonds

Yes, a squash dessert. Serve this sweet and savory dish, adapted from Vegetable Love by Barbara Kafka (Artisan 2005), over Greek yogurt or vanilla ice cream.

Kuri With Cumin, Raisins And Almonds i i
David Deutsch for NPR
Kuri With Cumin, Raisins And Almonds
David Deutsch for NPR

Makes 3 cups

1/2 cup raisins

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 pound red kuri or kabocha squash, peeled, seeded and fibers removed, cut into 1-inch chunks (about 3 cups)

1/2 cup slivered almonds

1/2 cup turbinado or raw sugar

1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Soak the raisins in 1 cup boiling water for 30 minutes. Drain and reserve the soaking liquid.

Melt the butter in an 11- or 12-inch skillet. Add the cumin and cook 1 minute over medium heat. Stir in the squash. Cook for 5 minutes. Add the raisins and almonds. Reduce heat slightly and cook for 7 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the reserved soaking liquid and cover. Cook for 5 minutes.

Add the sugar and ginger, stirring to combine. Cover and cook 5 to 8 minutes, or until squash is tender. Uncover, increase the heat to high and cook for a few minutes to reduce and thicken the liquid. Stir in the lemon juice and pepper.

To serve, spoon over yogurt or ice cream.

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