Demystifying squash
by Chef Boy Ari

One of the ways I realize it's autumn is that somebody approaches me with a question about how to cook squash. Most people are afraid and intimidated by this lovely, thick-skinned fruit. It doesn't need to be this way.

Ah, squash. Chocked with vitamins, beta-carotenes, starch and flavor, squash is the guardian angel of fall. In its many incarnations, it can be eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner; and, of course, dessert. Yes, dessert! Remember, pumpkin pie isn't just for pumpkins it's for all the winter squashes, and each type lends a signature twist to the pie. Years ago, some friends and I had a pumpkin/squash pie business. This gave me the opportunity to prove, scientifically, that one can live for weeks on squash pie alone, three meals a day plus dessert.

Meanwhile, one of our suppliers, a squash farmer in Vermont, taught me the following scientific verse that's with me to this day: In summer when it's hot and sticky, that's no time for dunkin' dickie. But when the frost is on the pumkin, that's the time for dickie dunkin'.

See, back East, Dickies are the most popular brand of work pants. But out West, we use Carhartts. Thus, I'll offer my own verse, also inspired by squash and work pants. I call it "Ode to Squash," and it goes like this: Squash, squash, you ripen in the season of the dying plants. Thanks for reminding me how dirty my Carhartts are. I think of you and wash my pants.

Anyway, why is it that so many people are cornered by the stale advice that squash is best cooked by cutting it in half and baking face-down on an oiled cookie sheet until soft? Yes, you can cook squash this way. And yes, it's really easy and delicious. Baked squash is also a good first step to more complex recipes, like ravioli with squash stuffing drenched in sherry morel sauce, or squash cookies. But if you just want to cook and eat a squash for dinner, this technique only scratches the surface of possibility, and faces you with the question of "What do you dress this baked squash with to make it more interesting?" Most people resort to butter, or soy sauce or maple syrup (as if squash isn't sweet enough). Nothing is wrong with any of these options, from time to time, but I have a hunch that our cultural habit of cooking squash this way is responsible for the widespread conviction that squash is boring. I mean, consider the tomato What would we think of the tomato if all we ever did was bake it and place it on the side of the plate?

The easiest, quickest advice that I can offer out of the baked squash vortex is that you can do with squash anything that you would do with a potato. Bake it, steam it, fry it, mash it, smash it, bake it again with cheese ...

What I usually do is this: First, cut open the squash and scoop out the seeds with a spoon. Then place the squash, cut side down, on the cutting board, and cut off the hard peel with a sturdy knife. Cut the squash flesh into small cubes, put them in a pot with enough water to cover it, and boil with a tight-fitting lid.

While the squash is cooking, get some goodies going in a fry pan. Start with oil or butter and/or chopped bacon. Saut`E9 onions, garlic, ginger, peppers whatever you like. Then, when the squash in the pot is soft, stir in the goodies from the pan and taste. Season with black pepper, salt or soy sauce and cider vinegar. Add water if you want squash soup, or slowly cook it down if you want something thicker. When almost ready to serve, stir in some chunks of a sturdy cheese, like feta.

If that's too vague and micromanagement is what you want, here's an exact recipe for coconut squash soup. Spread one cup shredded coconut on a sheet pan and toast at 350 until golden (about 5 minutes). Heat 1 tablespoon canola or grapeseed oil in a pot on medium heat. Saut`E9 one chopped onion until translucent. Add 2 tablespoons dark mustard seed, 1 cubic inch of chopped ginger, 1 tablespoon turmeric, 1 (or more) chopped hot peppers and 1 tablespoon curry powder. (I like Bengali-style curry powder the best here). Saut`E9 this mixture, stirring constantly, for about a minute.

Then add a cup of chicken or veggie stock and 7 cups squash, peeled and cubed as described above. My favorite squashes for this are blue hubbard, kabocha, buttercup, red curry and sweet meat. Add enough water to just cover the squash. Simmer until tender, then stir in one can coconut milk. Remove from heat and pur`E9e the soup, ideally with a submersible blender (aka "the tool"). A whisk works too. Or leave it chunky. Stir in 1 cup frozen peas and the toasted coconut. Season with salt and cider vinegar.

You'll never call squash boring again. You might even need to wash your pants.






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