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SQUASH SEASON: A primer to help you pick, prep and cook that great pumpkin

Squash are amazingly diverse and versatile vegetables – ranging from thin-skinned patty-pan and zucchini to butternut squash and pumpkins, acorn, Kuri, turban-like Kabocha and big, gnarly Hubbard squash. Learn how to use healthy winter squash in my recipes for pot pie, puddings and creamy, golden mac and cheese!


Heading to a local farm to pick a Halloween pumpkin is a popular autumn outing on Vancouver Island

By CINDA CHAVICH


Take a drive to a country market at this time of year and you’re sure to find piles and piles of pumpkin and squash.

It’s the last vegetable to be harvested and market gardeners spread them across the yard to cure on warm fall days before putting them into storage.

A trip to the local pumpkin patch to select a Hallowe’en pumpkin is a fall tradition in many communities. But these days there are many more varieties of squash for the table, far beyond the Jack-O-Lanterns and pie pumpkins of the past.


From bottom, Carnival, Acorn, white Ghost, red Kuri, dark green Kabocha, Delicata and Pumpkin squash

THE RAW MATERIALS

Squash are amazingly diverse and versatile vegetables – four species all belonging to the Cucurbita genus, and ranging from thin-skinned patty-pan, zucchini and tender crookneck squash, to butternut squash and pumpkins, even acorn, creamy buttercup, turban-like Kabocha and big, gnarly Hubbard squash.


Patt Pan and Crookneck summer squash

Once the summer squash (a.k.a. zucchini glut season) is over, and you’ve had your fill of these fresh but delicate non-keepers, it’s time to turn to winter squash. These are their hard-skinned cousins that come with an exterior armor that’s hard to peel, but helps keep them fresh longer.



But it’s hard to pick your favourite squash without a program. Here’s a cheat sheet:

  • · Acorn: deeply ridged exterior, dark green to orange or white, orange inside, looks like an acorn, moist when baked (cut into wedges or scalloped rings)

  • · Butternut: Looks like a beige bowling pin, smooth, easy to peel, thick neck is solid so best for cubes, sweet

  • · Red Kuri: a knobby red-orange squash with a teardrop tail, sweet and delicous

  • · Delicata: Also called Sweet Dumpling, acorn shaped or long, pale yellow with green stripes, tender skin

  • · Pumpkin: Skip the big jack-o-lanterns and go for a smaller Pie Pumpkin, cultivated for eating, or the big Calabaza (Jamaican pumpkin), so big, it’s usually sold in wedges. Usually orange but now blue pumpkin, too

  • · Turban: large, multi-coloured, looks like a turban, nutty sweet flesh

  • · Buttercup: dark green and light, flattened, like a mini-turban, flesh like sweet potato, very tasty

  • · Golden Nugget: looks like a round, mini orange pumpkin, small, smooth skin, very tasty and no need to peel

  • · Kabocha: flat like buttercup but larger, from Japan, green rind with stripes, extremely sweet but dry flesh, add butter or cream and mash

  • · Spaghetti: light coloured, football shape, with pale yellow or orange flesh that separates into spaghetti-like strands when cooked (cut cross-wise - not lengthwise - before baking and you'll get longer strands).

Cinderella Pumpkin

Hubbard Squash

Squash love heat and grow from Manitoba to Vancouver Island – the indigenous North American vegetable that can sustain your family over the winter with its fibre, potassium, beta-carotene, folate and vitamins. Butternut and Hubbard are particularly high in nutrients, especially beta-carotene and Vitamin C. Squash is low in calories, too – about 40 calories per half cup of plain cooked squash.



Stored in a cool place, with about 50% humidity, most winter squash will keep for at least eight weeks, some of the biggest, up to six months. Don’t store squash in the refrigerator.







THE PROCESS

Peeling winter squash is difficult so the best way to handle most squash is simply to halve them or cut them into wedges, scoop out and discard (or save and roast) the seeds, then bake at 350 F.

This is an easy way to serve small squash – a little Buttercup or Sweet Dumpling, halved, seasoned and baked with a little butter, makes a nice side dish for two.

But large squash can be baked and stuffed or simply steamed, the cooked flesh used for purees or creamy soups.

After baking or steaming, mash flesh or puree in a food processor, then drain in a strainer for 15 minutes before storing the puree in the refrigerator or freezing. Plain cooked squash is also great to use in muffins, quick breads, cakes, puddings or pies.

A couple of minutes in the microwave will soften the skin slightly to make cutting squash easier.

Butternut have the thinnest skin so are easiest to peel for soups of stews.

The microwave is an easy way to cook small squash, even whole, unpeeled specimens. Just pierce the squash several times and microwave on High 6 minutes per pound, then let stand 5 minutes before serving. Otherwise, cut in half, remove the seeds, place in a baking dish, cut side down, and bake for about 45-60 minutes at 350 F.

Roast squash at higher temperatures to brown and caramelize – just cut into wedges, discard seeds, set in a baking dish and drizzle with a little olive oil or melted butter, season with salt and pepper, and bake at 400 F for about 30 minutes.

For cubes, start with a smooth squash that’s easy to peel, like butternut, then cut into cubes before slicing off the skin from each piece with a sharp knife.



THE EQUIPMENT

A large swivel blade peeler is useful for peeling summer squash or smooth-skinned butternut squash, but in most cases, you can avoid peeling squash by cooking it first.

Use a large, heavy chef’s knife or cleaver to cut squash and be prepared to wield it – carefully! Once the blade is imbedded, you can lift the whole thing and knock it on the cutting board, or use a rolling pin or meat mallet to tap the widest part of the blade, near the handle, until it cuts through the tough skin and splits the squash in two.

You can also buy a simple, two-handled device that fits over the back of your cleaver and helps with rocking the blade down into the skin and through the squash. Some handy types even recommend using a clean small hand saw – somewhat safer than knives.


A non-stick roasting pan – or heavy baking sheet lined with parchment paper – makes cleaning up after roasting squash easy. No need to peel. Just roast first and cut away the rind later.

Or use a metal skewer to puncture a whole squash in several places, then wrap in plastic wrap and microwave until tender. Discard seeds and season flesh with butter, salt and pepper.












THE EMBELLISHMENTS

There are so many different ways to use squash, from mashes to soups and fillings for pasta or pies. Here's a quick compendium of ideas:

  • Consider squash cubes or purees when you're making curries, stuffings and vegetables mashes or hashes.

  • Sauteed with onions and potatoes, then simmered in stock and pureed, almost any kind of squash makes elegant creamy soup. Season with anything from sage and thyme to curry powder and cardamom.

  • Combine squash puree with Parmesan cheese and chopped herbs like rosemary to use in fillings for ravioli or for gnocchi. Add cubes of roasted squash to a simple risotto.

  • Drizzle squash wedges with olive oil and rub with crushed red chilies, sea salt, sage leaves and cinnamon before roasting.

  • Roast apple wedges alongside squash and puree together with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, or season it with finely grated orange zest, ginger and butter.

  • Mix goat cheese and thyme with squash puree for a side dish.

  • Include squash cubes along with other vegetables in chicken or pork stews.

  • Cut spaghetti squash in half, remove seeds, drizzle with olive oil and roast, cut side down until collapsing (roast some halves leeks along side to chop and add to the squash strands with butter, salt and pepper to serve).

  • Use a fork to remove the strands from spaghetti squash and toss with fruity olive oil, garlic, shredded Parmesan, roasted pinenuts and fresh basil. It also works with mayo in a “pasta” salad.

  • Small sweet squash make edible serving dishes, filled with chili, squash soup or wild rice pilaf.

  • A large halved squash, filled with traditional bread stuffing and baked, can stand in for turkey for vegetarians at holiday meals.

  • Slice a whole acorn squash into rings, remove seeds, toss with oil and spices and bake until tender.

  • Swap out half of the oil in your favourite carrot cake recipe with pureed pumpkin to reduce fat.

  • For a frozen pumpkin pie dessert, combine pureed cooked pumpkin with softened vanilla ice cream or frozen yogurt, then fill a crushed ginger snap crust and freeze (this combination an also be layered in dessert dishes or canning jars and frozen.

  • Or use cooked and mashed butternut squash and pie pumpkin in cookies and muffins



THE RECIPES:


TURKEY AND SQUASH POT PIE WITH WHITE CHEDDAR CRUST


With the Cheddar biscuit topping, this simple dish makes a popular family meal or potluck offering. It’s also an ingenious way to use up leftover turkey (cooked chicken or roast pork can also stand in). From High Plains: The Joy of Alberta Cuisine by Cinda Chavich (Fifth House).


2 1/2 cups water

1 teaspoon salt

1 pound peeled and seeded butternut squash, cubed

1 cup cooked or canned white beans

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons flour

1 cup turkey or chicken broth

2 tablespoons minced fresh sage

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 medium onion, slivered

3 cups cooked, cubed turkey

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley


Crust:

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons cold butter

1 1/2 cups old Cheddar, shredded

2/3 cup skim milk

cayenne pepper or paprika for dusting


1. Boil squash cubes in salted water until just tender, about 8 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon to a casserole dish, reserving 1 cup of cooking liquid.

2. In a saucepan, melt butter and saute onions for 5 minutes, until soft. Stir in flour and cook for 1 minute. Slowly add the broth and 1 cup of reserved cooking liquid. Bring to a boil. Stir in sage and pepper and simmer until thick, about 10 minutes.

3. Stir in drained beans (rinse beans if canned), parsley and cooked turkey. Pour over squash in dish. Check for seasoning.

4. For topping, combine flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Blend in butter using your hands or a pastry blended until crumbly. Stir in cheese and enough milk to form a sticky dough. Drop by tablespoonful over turkey mixture in baking dish.

5. Bake pot pie at 400 F for 25-30 minutes, until topping is golden. Dust with cayenne or paprika before serving. Serves 6.


GOLDEN MAC AND CHEESE

Adding roasted winter squash (think kabocha, acorn or butternut) and sage to mac and cheese elevates an old favourite, and gives the cheesy sauce an extra punch of colour and a healthy boost of fibre. I like to garnish this comforting vegetarian combination with crispy sage leaves, browned in butter, or stir in some browned button mushrooms to elevate the flavours. You can use regular macaroni but I like the way radiatore holds the sauce – you can even buy a grain-free, wild rice radiatore pasta!

Golden Mac and Cheese with winter squash

3/4 pound short, chunky pasta (radiatore, penne, macaroni)

3 medium shallots, halved and sliced

2 large cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon butter

2 tablespoons flour

3/4 cup chicken broth

¼ cup sour cream

½ cup cream

1 cup grated cheddar cheese

salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 cups roasted kabocha squash, cut into cubes

1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage leaves

2 cups sautéed mushrooms (optional)


Crispy Sage:

2 tablespoons butter

10 fresh sage leaves


Cook pasta in boiling salted water until just barely al dente. Drain, reserving some of the pasta water, and set aside.

In a saucepan, heat the butter to make the crispy sage leaves over medium heat, and sauté sage for a few minutes to crisp. Pour into a heat-proof bowl and set aside.


In the same saucepan, combine 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 1 tablespoon of butter and sauté the sliced shallots and garlic over medium heat for a few minutes, just until starting to brown. Stir in the flour and slowly add the broth, whisking until smooth and thick. Whisk in the sour cream and cream, bring back to a low simmer, then stir in the cheese until melted. Thin with a little extra cream or broth to make a smooth sauce.


Add the drained cooked pasta to the sauce, then stir in the roasted squash and chopped fresh sage leaves. Stir in the optional sautéed mushrooms.

Season to taste with salt and pepper to taste.


Reheat until the mixture is hot and bubbly, thinning with a splash of reserved pasta water if necessary. Serve in individual pasta bowls, garnished with browned butter and crispy sage leaves. Serves 4.


OPTIONS:

· Melt a few tablespoons of butter over medium heat and add a handful of fresh sage leaves. When the butter is brown and the leaves are crisped, remove, cool and save for garnishing your plate of pasta.

· Saute a couple of cups of small whole or sliced mushrooms in butter until nicely browned (season with salt and pepper), then stir in to your finished pasta dish for a “meaty” texture and a hit of umami.


BAJAN PUMPKIN SOUP

This is my version of a creamy — and spicy — pumpkin soup I enjoyed in Barbados. It’s a little more exotic than the usual, and a beautiful, rich color. Use the pressure cooker to speed up the cooking, or make it on the stove top and simmer until vegetables are tender.

3 tablespoons unsalted butter 1 onion, chopped 2 cloves garlic, chopped 1 red bell pepper, chopped 1 hot chile pepper (preferably Scotch bonnet), seeded and minced 1 lb. calabaza or butternut squash, peeled and cubed 2 cups chopped peeled sweet potatoes

4 cups chicken stock 1 tablespoon Caribbean curry powder

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg sprigs fresh thyme 1 cup coconut milk Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 green onions, finely chopped 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves


1. In the pressure cooker, melt butter over medium heat. Add onion and sauté for 5 minutes, until softened. Add garlic, red pepper, chile pepper and squash; sauté for 5 minutes. Add sweet potatoes, chicken stock, curry powder, nutmeg and thyme sprigs to taste.

2. Lock the lid in place and bring the cooker up to full pressure over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low, just to maintain even pressure, and cook for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and release pressure quickly. Let cool slightly. Discard thyme sprigs.

3. Working in batches, transfer soup to a blender or food processor and purée until smooth (or use an immersion blender in the cooker.) Return soup to cooker and bring to a simmer. Add coconut milk and heat through. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

5. Ladle into bowls and sprinkle each serving with green onions and thyme leaves. Serves 8


PUMPKIN FRITTERS

In the Caribbean, they often use salt cod in their fritters – a hangover from the historic trade between the region and Canada’s east coast. But this fritter is filled with pumpkin. A vegetarian, and addictive, snack to pass with rum punch.


¾ cup cornmeal

1/4 cup unbleached flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 tablespoon sugar

dash of grated nutmeg

1 cup coarsely grated or steamed, mashed pumpkin

2 green onions, minced

½ teaspoon minced chili pepper (preferably scotch bonnet)

1 large egg, lightly beaten

½ cup milk

salt and pepper

canola oil for frying


  1. In a small bowl, combine the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, sugar and nutmeg.

  2. In another bowl combine the pumpkin, green onions, chili pepper and egg. Add the dry ingredients to the wet, and stir to combine. Add enough of the milk to make a stiff dough. Season with salt and pepper.

  3. In a nonstick sauté pan, heat an inch of canola oil until hot – about 350°F (a drop of water added should sizzle). Drop fritter batter into the hot oil, a tablespoon at a time, and fry until golden on both sides. Drain fritters well on paper towels, sprinkle with a little more salt and pass with drinks. Makes about 16 fritters.


PUMPKIN PIE WITH CRUNCHY STREUSEL TOPPING

While pumpkin pie is traditionally served at fall suppers, it’s the kind of pie you can make any time of the year (if there’s a can of pumpkin in the pantry). Everyone loves it, and with no top crust to make, it’s easy. You can even use a frozen pie shell to speed things up. The crunchy streusel topping simply gilds the lily. You'll find this recipe in The Guy Can't Cook by Cinda Chavich (Whitecap Books).


pastry for 1 single crust, 9-inch (23-cm) pie (the recipe on a box of lard makes a good crust or

use a frozen pie shell)

1½ cups (375 mL) canned pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling)

3 large eggs

½ cup packed brown sugar

2 Tbsp cognac or bourbon

1 tsp ground cinnamon

¼ tsp ground cloves

¼ tsp grated nutmeg

½ tsp ground ginger

½ cup whipping cream

½ cup whole milk

¼ tsp salt


Topping:

¼ cup packed light brown sugar

2 Tbsp all-purpose flour

2 Tbsp unsalted butter, softened

¼ cup finely chopped pecans


  1. Make the pastry according to the recipe on the box. Roll the pastry into a circle, larger than your pie plate, then fold it in half (this makes it easier to pick up) and flop it into the pie pan. Rolling the crust out on a piece of parchment paper also makes placing it into the pie pan easier.

  2. Unfold, allowing the pastry to drape evenly over the edges of the pan. Use a sharp knife or kitchen shears to cut it into an even circle, about ½ inch (1 cm) larger than the pan. Roll the pastry under to form a double thick edge, then use your fingers to “flute” the pastry. (Press the index finger of your right hand up into the dough edge through a “V” formed by your left thumb and index finger on the top side—continue all around the pie to form a scalloped edge). Chill the crust in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

  3. To make the filling, whisk together the pumpkin, eggs, brown sugar, cognac, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, cream, milk, and salt in a large mixing bowl. If you want a really fluffy pie, separate the eggs. Add the yolks to the batter, then in a separate bowl beat the whites until they are stiff. Gently fold the egg whites into the pumpkin mixture.

  4. In a small bowl, combine all the topping ingredients. Mix with your hands until the butter is incorporated with the sugar and flour, and the mixture is crumbly. Set aside.

  5. Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Pour the filling into the prepared pie shell. Bake for 40 minutes, then sprinkle with the topping and continue to bake for 15 minutes longer, until the center is set and the topping is browned. Remove from the oven and cool thoroughly before slicing.

  6. Serve the pie wedges with a dollop of sweetened whipped cream or a small scoop of vanilla ice cream. A few slices of candied ginger make a nifty garnish, too. Serves 6 to


PUMPKIN AND DATE PUDDING

Another recipe from my best-selling book, 225 Best Pressure Cooker Recipes by Cinda Chavich (Robert Rose), a classic steamed pudding that cooks quickly under pressure (but you can also steam for 1-2 hours on the stovetop, in the oven, or for 4-5 hours in a slow cooker). This is where that vintage 'pudding basin' (crockery bowl with a wide rim) comes in handy — the rim holds the parchment in place when you tie it with string).

Serve this dense, steamy cake — a pumpkin-infusted sticky toffee pud — after a fall or holiday supper. It has more fiber and less fat than traditional pumpkin pie, but it’s best topped with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream!


8-cup (2 L) pudding mold, heatproof bowl or soufflé dish, well buttered Rack or trivet to fit bottom of pressure cooker or steaming pot 2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1⁄2 teaspoon baking soda

1⁄4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1⁄4 teaspoon salt 1⁄2 cup packed brown sugar

1⁄3 cup unsalted butter, softened 1 can (14 oz/398 mL) pumpkin purée (not pie filling) 2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup finely chopped dates

Vanilla ice cream or sweetened whipped cream

  1. In a bowl, combine flour, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, baking soda, nutmeg and salt. Set aside.

  2. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, cream brown sugar and butter until fluffy. Beat in pumpkin. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Stir in vanilla. Fold in flour mixture and dates, stirring until just combined.

  3. Pour batter into prepared mold and cover with parchment paper and foil, making sure mold is well sealed.

  4. Set rack in the bottom of the pressure cooker. Pour in 2 cups (500 mL) water for steaming. Fold a 2-foot (60 cm) long piece of foil several times to make a strip strong enough to lift the mold. Center mold on midpoint of strip and fold the ends together to make a handle. Lower the mold into the cooker.

  5. Lock the lid in place and bring the cooker up to full pressure over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low, just to maintain even pressure, and cook for 40 minutes. Remove from heat and allow pressure to drop naturally. Using foil handle, lift mold out of the cooker onto a cooling rack. Remove foil lid and let cool slightly. Run a sharp knife around edge of pudding to loosen and unmold onto a warm serving plate.

  6. Serve slices of warm pudding topped with ice cream or whipped cream.

TIP: An easy way to finely chop sticky dates is to spray the knife blade with nonstick cooking spray or rinse the knife in warm water from time to time as you work. Whole pitted dates and other dried fruits are less sticky if you toss them with a little flour before chopping.



PUMPKIN CUSTARD

This is like pumpkin pie—but without the crust and all the extra work and calories. This is the my preferred dessert for that other turkey-based holiday, Thanksgiving. From The Girl Can't Cook, by Cinda Chavich (Whitecap Books).



3/4 cup granulated sugar

3 tablespoons water

1 cup half-and-half cream

1 cup evaporated skim milk

2 tablespoons dark rum

pinch salt

3 large eggs

1 cup canned pumpkin purée (not pie filling)

1/3 cup brown sugar

1 teaspoon cornstarch

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon mace

whipped cream to garnish


  1. In a heavy skillet, melt the granulated sugar and water over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat and boil without stirring until the mixture turns golden brown, swirling the pan occasionally and using a wet pastry brush to rinse any sugar from the sides of the pot. This should take about 10 minutes.

  2. Working quickly, pour the caramelized sugar into an 8-cup (2-L) round soufflé or baking dish, swirling to coat it well. Set aside to allow the sugar to harden. (You can also do this in 6 or 8 individual ovenproof soufflé molds, for individual desserts.)

  3. Preheat the oven to 350ºF (180ºC). Bring the half-and-half, evaporated milk and rum to a boil in a heavy saucepan. Remove from the heat and stir in the salt.

  4. Whisk the eggs, pumpkin, brown sugar, cornstarch and spices together in a large bowl to blend well. Gradually whisk in the hot milk mixture.

  5. Pour the custard into the prepared baking dish. Place the dish in a larger baking pan filled with 2 inches (5 cm) of hot water. Bake the custard for about 1 hour, until set and puffed. Remove from the water and cool. Cover with plastic wrap and chill overnight.

Before serving, run a knife around the edge of the dish and invert the custard onto a rimmed plate. The caramel sauce should form a pool around the custard. Cut into wedges and serve a little sauce spooned over each piece, with a dollop of whipped cream on the side. Serves 6–8.



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