When I was growing up, squash was not very popular in our family. Pumpkin was purchased once a year, but it was carved into a jack-o-lantern for Halloween. The seeds would usually be toasted for snacking, but the sweet flesh always went uneaten.
While still not what you would call a huge squash eater, I have started taking advantage of the extensive selection of winter squash now available in most markets. I find myself making the standard dishes like baked squash and pumpkin bread, and have also begun to experiment with some of the new varieties. And I have discovered that squash is not only superb steamed and served with a black bean sauce, but it is the perfect foil for spicy braised spareribs or chicken.
According to the late Waverly Root, author of "Food" (Simon and Schuster, 1980), squash is a native American vegetable. In fact, it may have been the very first food to be cultivated by the American Indians. Evidence indicates it was, with maize and beans, one of the staples of the Indian diet. Archeological remains in Mexican caves suggest it was cultivated as early as 9000 to 400 B.C. and it was a staple crop of the Pueblo Indians in the Southwest more than 2,000 years ago.
Gourds, which are closely related to squash, were among the earliest cultivated foods in the Old World. Although some historical sources quote "squash" as being grown in the gardens of Babylon and being used in Roman recipe books, this so-called "squash" was more likely gourds. The squash we know today remained the secret food treasure of the American Indians until the 17th century, when European explorers brought some varieties back from the New World.
Today, the word "squash" refers to an extensive variety of gourds, pumpkins and marrows. Within the general family of squash, or "cucurbita," are six main varieties, the most familiar being the summer and winter strains. Summer squash, which include zucchini, yellow and pattypan varieties, generally have soft skins and are picked before they are fully ripe. Winter squash are harvested mature and have a hard outer skin and seeds. The most common varieties of the winter squash family include acorn, butternut, turban, hubbard and pumpkin, and today any well stocked produce section offers a full selection of both familiar and new strains.
At least 18 varieties of squash are available on the wholesale market, according to Carol Bowman-Williams, director of Consumer and Information Services for Frieda's Finest, a wholesale produce company based in Los Angeles that has been instrumental in introducing varieties of vegetables to supermarkets. They include the traditional favorites such as butternut, acorn and hubbard, plus a host of new varieties, including delicata (a striped squash with dark gold flesh and a mild, slightly sweet cornlike flavor) and kabocha, which has golden flesh, a creamy texture and rich squash flavor. There are also a number of miniature oriental squashes such as sweet dumpling and golden nugget, both with sweet-tasting flesh.
"Sweet dumpling and golden nugget are especially nice to stuff," said Bowman-Williams, "and because their flesh is so sweet, a dried fruit filling goes nicely. The other squash varieties, in addition to the usual cooking methods of baking, steaming and boiling, are excellent stuffed with a meat or bread crumb filling."
Accompanying this influx of squash varieties in the stores is the appearance of new and unusual squash dishes on the menus of upscale restaurants. Chefs are no longer using squash only for the usual medley of breads, stuffed vegetables and puddings. Instead, they are experimenting and creating dishes which are innovative and highlight the versatility of this vegetable.
Moncef Meddeb, Boston-based chef-owner of L'Espalier restaurant who was just recently named as one of the 50 on this year's "Who's Who in American Food" honor roll by Cook's magazine, daily scours local markets for the freshest seasonal ingredients for his menu. Since squash is plentiful, it is an ingredient frequently found on the menu. Among his favorite squash dishes is a flan made with buttercup squash, eggs and cream, and garnished with nuggets of lobster, chanterelle mushrooms and snow peas.
Meddeb described some of the ways he uses members of the squash family: "Most people don't realize it, but squash is a very versatile medium which lends itself to a number of different cooking techniques. You can use it to make pure'es, flans, soups, sauces, souffle's -- even fritters. I think their natural sweetness complements certain foods like seafood, smoked products and confit (preserved goose). I also like to make a butternut squash sauce with a little white wine, chicken broth and shallots. I cook it a little, add a little cream, and reduce it still further. Then I just finish it off with some squash pure'e and a touch of Jack Daniel's. I serve this sauce with smoked scallops that have been poaching gently until they are warm."
Marian Morash, author of "The Victory Garden Cookbook," is another squash lover: "One of the greatest things about winter squash -- in addition to the delicious flavor -- is the storage factor. I adore the fact that you can get winter squash out of your garden or at the local market, put it in a cool, dry place like the attic or garage, and then you just have it there. It's like a treasure chest all winter long. And there are so many different varieties to choose from."
Morash favors spaghetti squash and the Waltham butternut, a variety developed near her home, but she also loves to use the larger varieties, such as banana and turban squash, as a dramatic edible container, stuffing them with rice and spinach.
"One thing I like to do if I'm cooking squash and mashing and pure'eing it -- especially in the fall: I throw big chunks of apples in it, which give it a beautiful sweetness. Then you just pure'e it all together. If you don't have apples, you could add some applesauce. And of course, you add plenty of butter. Ummm, it's really good."
In selecting squash, Morash advises, "It should be hard, heavy and clean. Avoid any that's cracked or has soft or decayed spots."
Perhaps the following recipes will inspire you to try some of the common and new varieties of squash now available at most markets. SPICY CHINESE CHICKEN IN PUMPKIN (4 to 6 servings)
4 chicken legs and thighs, about 2 pounds total
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice wine
1 1/2 tablespoons sesame oil
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons crushed chili peppers
2 tablespoons minced scallions
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 small pumpkin, about 3 1/2 pounds
1/2 cup safflower or corn oil
Using a heavy cleaver or chef's knife, cut the legs and thighs, through the bones, into 4 to 5 pieces. Place in a bowl and add the hoisin sauce, soy sauce, rice wine, sesame oil, sugar, crushed chili peppers, scallions, garlic, ginger and pepper. Toss lightly to coat, cover with plastic wrap, and let sit at least 4 hours at room temperature, or overnight in the refrigerator.
Rinse the pumpkin and pat dry. Using a sharp knife, cut out a lid, carving at a point which is one-third of the length from the top. Using a melon baller or a spoon, scoop out the seeds and the stringy meat. Using a large chef's knife, score the pumpkin, cutting 1 1/2-inch horizontal slashes in several rows. (This will allow the pumpkin to cook evenly.)
Heat a wok or a deep skillet and add the safflower or corn oil. Heat until very hot, about 400 degrees. Drain the chicken pieces, reserving the marinade, and add half to the hot oil. Cover the pan to prevent the oil from splashing. Fry briefly, browning on all sides, and remove with a slotted spoon. Drain. Reheat the oil, add the remaining chicken pieces and brown on all sides. Remove and drain.
Arrange the fried chicken pieces in the pumpkin and pour the reserved marinade on top. Replace the lid and bake 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours in a 450-degree oven, or until the pumpkin is tender when pierced with a knife. Remove. To serve, remove the lid and spoon out the chicken and cooked pumpkin meat. BUTTERNUT SQUASH CHIFFON PIE (Makes one 9-inch pie)
FOR THE PIE CRUST:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup unsalted butter
1/3 cup ice water
FOR THE FILLING:
1 cup light brown sugar
5 large eggs, separated and at room temperature
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
2 cups cooked, mashed butternut squash
1/2 cup whipping cream
To prepare the pie crust: in a food processor fitted with a steel blade, or in a bowl with a pastry cutter or fork, add the flour and salt. Pulse briefly, by turning the machine on and off. Add the butter, cut into tablespoon-size pieces, and cut the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles cornmeal, turning the machine on and off. Add the water and pulse, or mix by hand until the mixture forms small beads and begins to come together to form a ball. Cover with plastic wrap and chill at least 30 minutes. On a lightly floured board, roll out the dough to a 12-inch circle. Place the dough in a pie plate or quiche pan with the dough hanging over the sides. Crimp the edges and trim the border. Refrigerate 20 minutes to 1 hour, or until firm.
Line the dough crust with parchment paper or waxed paper and fill with beans or rice. Bake 10 minutes in a 450-degree oven, or until the edges become lightly golden. Remove, cool, and reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees.
In a mixing bowl, combine the brown sugar, egg yolks, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, squash, and cream. Mix to blend. Beat the egg whites until stiff, adding a pinch of cream of tartar, if necessary. Fold the stiff egg whites into the squash mixture. Pour the mixture into the partially baked pie crust and bake 40 to 45 minutes, or until the filling is puffed and set. Remove and let cool. Before serving, garnish with whipped cream. MARIAN MORASH'S SPAGHETTI SQUASH WITH CLAM SAUCE (6 servings)
2 large spaghetti squash, weighing about 2 pounds apiece
FOR THE CLAM SAUCE:
2 to 3 dozen littleneck clams
1/3 cup white wine
1/4 cup olive oil
3 to 4 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup chopped parsley
Place the squash on a cookie sheet and prick the outside with a long-tinged fork so that it won't burst while cooking. Bake about 1 1/2 hours, or until tender, in a 350-degree oven. Cut open the squash and using a fork, "comb" the squash flesh and the spaghetti will pull off in long strands. Set aside on a platter.
Scrub the clams well and steam briefly in the white wine until they open. Remove the flesh, discarding the shells, then strain the broth and reserve. Heat the olive oil, and saute' the garlic, until cooked but not brown. Add the reserved broth, grind in pepper, bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer 5 minutes. Add the clams to the sauce. Pour over the hot spaghetti sauce and toss with parsley. Season with additional salt and pepper, if necessary. From "The Victory Garden Cookbook" by Marian Morash, (Alfred A. Knopf, 1982) GRACE STEADMAN'S SQUASH BISCUITS (Makes about 4 dozen biscuits)
1 cup cooked, mashed butternut or pumpkin squash
2 cups milk
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature and cut into tablespoon-size pieces
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 ( 1/4-ounce) packages active dryyeast
1/2 cup warm water
6 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
In a medium-size saucepan, add the mashed squash, 1 cup milk, and the butter. Heat the mixture slowly while stirring constantly. Add the sugar, salt, and the remaining milk. Continue heating until lukewarm. Dissolve the yeast in the warm water and add to the squash mixture. Add about 4 cups flour and mix to a soft dough. Continue adding the remaining flour, a little at a time, until the dough is soft, but not tacky. Place in a greased bowl, and let rise 1 hour in a warm place, free from drafts.
Cut the dough down with a knife and let rise another hour. Cut the dough down again with a knife and turn out onto a lightly floured board. Knead lightly to remove any large air bubbles. Roll out the dough to a large rectangle about 1/2-inch thick. Using a biscuit cutter or a 2- to 2 1/2-inch round, cut the dough into circles. Arrange the circles on lightly greased baking sheets and let rise 1 hour. Bake about 20 minutes in a 400-degree oven. Remove, cool, and serve.