Food and Drink
3:20 pm
Tue November 2, 2010

Winter Squash: New Faces In The Pumpkin Patch

If you've had enough of the seemingly ubiquitous butternut squash soup, have no fear. Butternut and acorn squash are making way for varieties like kabocha and jarrahdale. Yes, squash is the latest "it" fruit, so it's time to go beyond butternut.

See a "Squash Sampler" describing some of many varieties of winter squash, and get recipes for Baked Onions With Buttercup Squash Filling, Citrouille Farcie (Stuffed Pumpkin), Squash Stew With Lamb, Squash Risotto, and Kuri With Cumin, Raisins And Almonds.

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.

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.