Seasons by the Sea

October 19, 2006

Ever wonder what you're supposed to do with those big ol' gourds and squashes and pumpkins you're confronted with this time of year? You know, besides decorate your mantel or front porch with them?

You could do what I used to do: Leave them in front of the house for a few months until the big bad Mullaney brothers come by and smash them to smithereens all over the street. Or you could cook them, making savory gratins, silky soups, smooth purÚes, and custardy pies.

There are so many types of winter squash that it can be daunting to visit the farm stand - what to do with which? Some have sweet, bright flesh, some can be dry or watery, some have beautiful, jewel-like colors - jade, amber, topaz, citrine - and others are warty or look like baby alien heads.

The names can be kooky - toadback, banana, calabaza, acorn, sweet mama, cheese, golden nugget, munchkin, and, my personal favorite, princess. (Don't try to cook her though; she is quite large and content just to sit there looking, well, kind of princessy.)

The English word squash is from "askutasquash," a Narragansett word for "a green thing eaten raw." Squash is native to North America and was one of the "three sisters," along with corn and beans, planted by Native Americans. These were the three main indigenous plants and were grown together, with the cornstalks providing support for the climbing beans and shade for the squash, and the squash vine just so happened to provide groundcover to limit weed growth.

Historically, squash and pumpkins were pollinated by their very own squash bee, which has since declined because of pesticides, so now most commercial crops are pollinated by honey bees. Botanically, pumpkins and squash are fruit of the genus Cucurbita, which also includes summer squash, zucchini, pattypan, and crookneck.

While summer squash is best eaten when picked, winter squash has a harder rind and can keep for several months in a cool place. Of the many varieties available, some of the most popular and tasty are butternut, acorn, Hubbard, delicata, kabocha, and spaghetti.

The best pumpkins for carving and leaving out for the Mullaney boys are Connecticut field. For pies, the small sugar and cheese pumpkins are excellent.

It is believed that pumpkins were present in one form or another at the first Thanksgiving meal the Puritans shared with Native Americans. They became so popular that one early Connecticut colony postponed its Thanksgiving meal because there was no molasses available to sweeten the pumpkin pie.

The tradition of displaying carved pumpkins with candles in them came from Irish immigrants. All Hallow's Eve (Oct. 31) marked the end of the Celtic calendar year. Hollowed-out rutabagas, turnips, and beets (that one had to be messy!) were displayed in windows to ward off evil spirits, welcome home deceased ancestors, and scare away one particular restless soul called Stingy Jack, hence jack-o'-lantern.

When choosing squash or pumpkins, look for hard, smooth, unblemished skins. They should feel heavy for their size and shouldn't have any soft spots, mold, or bruises. It's okay if there's a slightly flattened pale area on one side, as this is simply where your squash was resting comfortably in a field while growing.

Be super careful if you are going to peel a squash (such as butternut) before cooking: The skins are tough. Spaghetti squash can be cut in half and baked before further preparation. Acorn squash can be split and topped with butter, salt and pepper, and brown sugar before baking. Generally, any of the winter squash can be roasted, baked, boiled, or microwaved, although this last method is not my bag, so I'm not going to help you there.

Butternut squash is my favorite, so I'm giving you a recipe from my Korean stepmother-out-law (figure that one out). She is an awesome cook and I think she just made it up.

The spaghetti squash recipe is an old favorite, perfect for vegetarian meals. I usually increase the amount of cheese in it because I am a piglet. The stringy spaghetti-like strands are fun for children to pull out with a fork once the squash has cooked and cooled. You can serve this simply with Parmesan cheese and/or tomato sauce - in other words, any way that you would top pasta.

Toasting pumpkin seeds (pepitas) is also fun after you have carved your jack-o'-lantern and made a big mess all over the table.

Winter squash and pumpkin are full of fiber, vitamins A and C, and beta-carotene, and they're cheap! So experiment with the different varieties and seasonings, enjoy the fall bounty, and get your pumpkin off the porch before the Mullaney boys go wilding!

Chrissie's Brilliant Roasted Butternut Squash

Serves four.

1 large butternut squash, peeled (be careful!) and cut up coarsely in 1-inch chunks
4 Tbsp. fresh grated ginger
1 Tbsp. fresh or dried rosemary
1/4 cup maple syrup
6 Tbsp. butter or olive oil or combination of both
Toss squash with ginger, rosemary, and maple syrup. Lay in gratin dish or casserole in one layer. Dot with butter or drizzle with oil.

Bake at 400 degrees for approximately 45 minutes. Stir once or twice during cooking to prevent sticking.

Baked Spaghetti Squash With Two Cheeses

(I think this recipe is from an old issue of Food and Wine magazine.)

Makes four main-course or eight side-dish servings.

1 medium spaghetti squash (about 3 lbs.)
1 cup fresh parsley leaves, chopped
2 medium garlic cloves, chopped
3 oz. mozzarella cheese, cut into 1-inch pieces
3 oz. soft goat cheese (remember, Piglet uses more of both cheeses)
3/4 tsp. salt
Pepper to taste

Boil spaghetti squash in large pot 20 to 25 minutes or until just tender when pierced with a sharp knife. Drain, cool, cut in half, scoop out seeds, then loosen and scrape out strands with a fork. Transfer to a large bowl and stir in parsley, garlic, salt, and pepper.

Butter a shallow, six-cup baking dish. Spread spaghetti squash mixture in dish. Top with mozzarella and dots of goat cheese.

Bake at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes, until heated through. Then broil cheese on top for about one minute till lightly browned.

Pumpkin Puree With Olive Oil

(From Roger Verge's "Vegetables in the French Style")

Serves four.

1 small pumpkin (about 41/2 lbs.)
4 garlic cloves
7 Tbsp. olive oil
A few drops of Tabasco sauce
4 slices country bread, toasted or grilled

Preheat oven to 475 degrees. Cut a six-inch lid from the top of the pumpkin, scoop out seeds and fiber. Salt the inside and the lid. Bake on a baking sheet for about 30 minutes. Flesh should be cooked and no liquid should be left inside.

Peel and mince garlic. Remove cooked flesh from pumpkin. Heat two tablespoons of oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. When it starts to smoke, add pumpkin, stirring and pressing to evaporate more juices, and breaking down pumpkin to a purÚe. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the rest of the olive oil, garlic, Tabasco, and some salt.

Keep warm and serve with toasted or grilled country bread brushed with olive oil.

Toasted Pumpkin Seeds

Get as many seeds from the pumpkin pulp as you have patience for. Toss with two tablespoons melted butter and one teaspoon salt. Bake at 300 degrees for about 40 minutes, stirring occasionally.