Winter squash rise like moons out of the fall garden after their canopy of vines die. It’s always a surprise to see them…how many, and how large and beautiful! In the early years we planted them in our field corn and let them ramble between the rows. Neighbors gave us seed for a variety called “Sweetmeat”, a behemoth that I remember growing to the size of a Volkswagen, though it was probably only 60 or 70 lbs. I think it took us all winter to eat it.
Japanese winter squash, or Kabocha, have long been my favorites because of their rich flavor and dry flesh. I currently grow “Sunshine”, a brilliant orange, flavorful squash bred by Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Last season I trialed “Berrettina Piacentina”, a 3 to 5-pound handsome grey-green squash offered by Seeds From Italy, and it has gotten rave reviews. This year I’ll add “Eastern Rise” from Fedco Seeds, described as having a “rich nutty flavor in perfect balance.” Butternut squash, though not as deeply flavored, always has a place in the garden because it is resistant to squash vine borers and is a superb keeper.
Winter squash is a reliable and abundant winter staple for us, so I always like to experiment with new varieties to grow and more ways to use it. That’s easy, because winter squash is popular all around the world. Winter squash is great baked whole and scooped out to eat with butter and salt or turned into pie, but it also takes well to Indian or Thai curry spices, Japanese, Italian, Turkish, Middle-Eastern, and North African flavors. My newest experiments have been inspired by recipes in Jerusalem a Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi.
Winter squash can be something like a winter substitute for eggplant. I grill or roast slices of squash and splash them with a vinaigrette, toss roasted chunks with greens and raw vegetables for salads, or combine the squash with other roasted vegetables for topping pasta or bruschetta. Now, I have discovered a squash version of baba ganoush!
Roasted Squash and Tahini Spread
Ottolenghi’s spread is slightly sweetened with date syrup and spiced with cinnamon. My version went in a more spicy direction, with red chile and cumin.
Ingredients: 2 1/2 cups roasted squash (about 1/2 of a medium winter squash, or 3 1/2 cups squash cut in 3/4-inch chunks), 4 Tbs chopped sundried or oven-dried tomatoes, 2 minced garlic cloves, zest of 1 lemon, 2 Tbs fresh lemon juice, 4 Tbs sesame tahini, 1 or 2 small red chiles (or 1/4 tsp or more cayenne or other hot red pepper), 1 tsp toasted and lightly crushed cumin seed, freshly ground black pepper and salt.
Use a food processor or potato masher to make a coarse, spreadable mixture. Season to taste with salt, black pepper, and more chiles. I added Justin’s smoked jalapeno sauce.
Marinated Roast Squash
Ingredients: 2 lbs winter squash, 2 cloves garlic, extra virgin olive oil, white wine vinegar, kosher or sea salt, 1/2 tsp crushed fennel seed, chopped fresh herbs (oregano, thyme, mint, or parsley), thinly sliced red onion
Heat an outdoor grill or ridged stovetop grill over high heat, or heat the oven to 425 degrees F. Peel and slice the squash 1/4-inch thick for grilling or 1/2-inch thick for oven roasting. Toss the slices with 2 Tbs olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and grill about 4 minutes per side, until marked with dark grill marks and tender inside. Roast thicker slices on a baking sheet, 10 to 15 minutes per side.
Arrange the cooked squash on a platter with thinly sliced red onion. Mash the garlic with a pinch coarse salt to make a paste. Add the fennel seed and whisk together with 2 Tbs white wine vinegar and 4 Tbs extra virgin olive oil. Drizzle the vinaigrette over the warm squash and sprinkle with finely chopped fresh herbs.
Slow-Sauté of Squash with Greens
The sweet flavor of winter squash combines well with the sharpness of kale, chard or spinach. This sauté makes a great filling for tacos or wraps, or a topping for pasta, pilaf, or polenta.
Ingredients: 1 1/2 lbs. winter squash (4 1/2 to 5 cups, peeled and cut in 1/2-inch dice), 1 medium onion (2/3 to 1 cup thinly sliced), 1 large garlic clove, 1/2 small hot chile (1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes), 2 Tbs olive oil, salt and black pepper, 1 bunch kale, chard or spinach.
Peel, seed, and cut the squash into 1/2-inch cubes. Thinly slice the onion and garlic. Mince the chile. Wash the greens, trim the stems and tough midribs, and cut the leaves into thin strips.
Warm 2 Tbs olive oil in a large skillet or sauté pan over medium heat. Stir in the onion and cook 3 or 4 minutes to soften. Stir in the garlic and chile. Add the squash cubes and stir to coat well with oil. Increase the heat to medium-high and cook, stirring occasionally, 4 or 5 minutes. When the squash has begun to soften, add the greens and stir to combine. Sprinkle on 1/2 tsp kosher or sea salt and about 2 Tbs water. Reduce the heat to medium, cover the pan, and cook until the vegetables are tender, 4 or 5 minutes.
Variation: Start the sauté by cooking 1 link Italian sausage (removed from the casing), diced pancetta, or bacon in 1 Tbs olive oil. Brown the meat 3 to 5 minutes over medium heat before continuing with the recipe.
Roasted Squash and Red Onion with Pomegranate
Toasty brown squash slices are delicious on their own and even more so tossed with the bright flavors of fresh herbs and crunchy sweet-sour pomegranate seeds. Pair this with wild rice pilaf, a roast chicken, or pita bread and yogurt sauce.
Ingredients: 1 winter squash (about 2 to 2 1/2 lbs.), 2 red onions, 1 /2 pomegranate, 3 Tbs olive oil, 2 or 3 Tbs chopped parsley, mint, oregano, or cilantro
Heat the oven to 425 degrees F. Cut the squash in half, scoop out the seeds, and peel. Cut into 3/4-inch cubes or wedges. Cut the onions into 1-inch wedges. Toss the vegetables with olive oil and 1 tsp kosher salt and place on baking sheets in a single layer, keeping the squash and onions separate. Roast 30 to 40 minutes, turning them after 20 minutes, until they are nicely browned and tender inside. Remove from the oven, toss together, and garnish with pomegranate seeds (or toasted nuts), and chopped herbs.
Extra delicious: Serve with orange-mint gremolata. Chop together 3 Tbs flat-leaf parsley, 3 Tbs fresh mint, 2 tsp orange zest, 1 garlic clove, and a pinch sea salt…Or, drizzle with Corpus Christy Chiles made with plenty of lime juice.
Kabocha Squash Kimpira
This dish involves a Japanese cooking method that is a combination of searing and braising–very useful for dense vegetables like winter squash, carrot, parsnip, burdock, sweet potato, and turnip. Cut vegetables are seared in a little hot oil before cooking in a covered pot until tender and infused with the flavors of the braising liquid.
Ingredients: 1 1/2 lbs. winter squash (about 5 cups cut into 1/2 x 2-inch wedges), 2 or 3 shallots, 2 1/2 Tbs oil, 1 small dry red pepper, 1 Tbs minced ginger, 2 Tbs soy sauce, 1 Tbs mirin, 3 Tbs rice wine (sake), 2 Tbs toasted sesame seeds
Cut the winter squash in quarters, remove the seeds, and peel. Cut the squash into 1/2 x 1 13/4-inch slices. Cut the shallots in wedges. Heat the oil with the crumbled red pepper and ginger in a large skillet or sauté pan with a tightly fitting lid over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the squash and shallots and toss to coat with oil. Cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until the squash begins to brown, 4 to 6 minutes. Add soy sauce, mirin, and sake; toss to combine. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover the pot and simmer until the squash is just tender and all the liquid is absorbed, 5 or 6 minutes. Transfer to a serving dish and garnish with toasted sesame seeds.
Winter Squash Soup, with many Variations
Roasting is the easiest way to deal with a whole winter squash, especially warty and ridged varieties. Heat the oven to 400 degrees F, put the whole squash on a baking sheet, stick it in the oven, and wait about one hour or so. When it is soft, cut it in half, scoop out the seeds, and serve it with any kind of seasonings you like. Or, cut the squash in half, scoop out the seeds, and bake the halves face down (or face up, sprinkled with fresh herbs and spices and covered with foil) on a lightly oiled baking sheet. Roasted squash is ready to be turned into any number of delicious soups. If you decide to go with a half squash or start the soup with peeled chunks, the seeds and clean skins can be used to make a vegetable broth to use in these soups.
Broth: Use the seeds and skins from 1 or 2 squashes, 1 carrot, 1 parsnip or celery stalk, 1 small onion, 2 or 3 garlic cloves, 3 sprigs fresh thyme, and 2 sprigs parsley. Cut all the vegetables in half and put everything in a pot with water to cover (about 7 or 8 cups). Simmer about 45 minutes. Strain before using or freezing.
Roasted Winter Squash Soup with Caramelized Onion
We were served this winter squash soup for breakfast in Japan, accompanied by a hotdog and fresh sea snails. Made with roasted red kuri or other richly flavored orange-fleshed squash, the soup is mellow and beautiful.
Ingredients: 2 1/2 to 3 lb. flavorful winter squash, 2 large white or yellow onions, 1 Tbs vegetable oil, 2 Tbs butter, 1/2 to 1 cup light cream or whole milk (preferably organic), vegetable broth, salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat the oven to 400 degrees F. Roast the squash for about one hour, until the skin is wrinkled and the flesh is soft. Peel off the skin and remove the seeds. Add any juices from the pan back into the cooked squash.
While the squash bakes, cut the onions in half and slice them very thinly. Warm the oil and butter in a large skillet or sauté pan over medium heat and stir in the onions. Reduce the heat to low and cook the onions, stirring occasionally, until very soft and caramelized to a beautiful golden brown.
Using a blender or food processor, puree the cooked squash and onions together until smooth. Add cream, milk, and/or vegetable broth to make the soup as thin or thick as you like. Season to taste with salt and black pepper.
*Roasted Squash with Indian Spices: Add 1 Tbs garam masala or other curry powder to the soup and simmer 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Heat 1 1/2 Tbs peanut or sesame oil in a small skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add 2 tsp black mustard seed and 2 tsp cumin seeds and cook 10 to 20 seconds, until aromatic. Pour into the soup right before serving. Garnish with chopped cilantro. Serve with Indian pickle and yogurt sauce (1 cup thick whole milk yogurt mixed with 1/4 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp ground cumin, 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper, 1/4 tsp cayenne, and 1/4 tsp turmeric).
*To give the soup a slightly different flavor profile, substitute 1/2 tsp 5-spice, 1/4 tsp cinnamon, and 1/8 tsp cardamom for the curry powder. Just before serving, stir in 4 Tbs fresh orange juice and 1 Tbs fresh lime juice.
*Thai Coconut Curry Soup: Heat 1 cup coconut milk in a saucepan. Whisk in 2 tsp minced ginger and 1 or 2 tsp Thai red curry paste. Cook 3 to 4 minutes. Combine with the squash-onion puree. Stir in 1 or 2 tsp fresh lemon or lime juice. Garnish with chopped mint or cilantro and thinly sliced green onion. Sprinkle with chopped roasted peanuts.
*Squash and White Bean Soup with Sage: Use vegetable broth or liquid from cooking beans instead of milk or cream to thin the squash puree or to simmer the squash chunks with sautéed onion.
Warm 2 Tbs olive oil and 1 Tbs butter in a skillet over medium low heat. Add 12 fresh sage leaves and cook, turning often, until they are crisp. Set the leaves aside on a paper towel to cool. Add 1 Tbs finely chopped garlic, 1 minced red chile (dry or fresh), 4 thinly sliced fresh sage leaves, and 2 tsp fresh thyme leaves to the pan. Cook about 30 seconds. Add 1 1/2 to 2 cups cooked white beans (canned are fine) and some of their cooking liquid to the pan and simmer 5 minutes. Add the beans to the Squash puree and simmer over very low heat to let the flavors blend, 5 to 10 minutes.
Crumble the sage leaves over the soup before serving. Serve with freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Orange-mint gremolata, or simply a little orange zest is a good addition.