SQUASH SEASON: A winter squash and pumpkin primer for fall

Squash is the quintessential autumn ingredient — whether it’s a big Hallowe’en pumpkin to carve, a Sweet Dumpling to stuff or a dense golden Butternut to swirl into a creamy soup. Here's a primer on the squash of the season, and how to cook it!



By CINDA CHAVICH


Families come to Michell Bros. Farm outside Victoria in October to choose a jack-o-lantern, a seasonal tradition akin to choosing the best and biggest Christmas tree.

The field that hugs the highway is a surreal sight, a sea of orange orbs ready for picking. But beyond the classic pumpkins, there are nine other varieties of winter squash produced on this historic family farm.

In fact, there are so many different kinds of squash to choose these days - each with a specific texture, colour, size and flavour - it’s almost impossible to pick your favourite without a program.

We love to cook with pumpkin and squash at home, but chefs are finding new ways to feature this sturdy fall vegetable on their creative, local menus, too. It’s mixed with cheese and local crab to stuff the tender ravioli at Cowichan Pasta, combined with rye berries and kale for a rustic risotto at OLO, and used to make plates of golden Butternut Squash Gnocchi at Bubby’s Kitchen. Roasted butternut squash is also served with greens and carrot dressing for a sexy salad at Part and Parcel, and baked into

That’s the beauty of winter squash. It has the ability to morph from appetizers and salads to main dishes and desserts, whether served raw in thin ribbons or seasoned with cinnamon and other sweet dark spices for pies, pumpkin crème brulee, muffins and coffee cakes.

Squash is good for you, too. Loaded with B vitamins and beta carotene (any orange vegetable is a treasure trove of this antioxidant that wards off cancer), squash is low in calories and high in fibre, but you need a little fat to help absorb that so make sure you include a bit of butter, olive oil or cream in your squash recipes.

Squash can be cooked in various ways. The sweet flesh can be roasted, grilled, mashed or pureed for soups and baked goods — some squash can even be pulled into strands like spaghetti. Think about adding pureed leftover winter squash to thicken any hearty vegetable or cream soup, and mix it into a cheese sauce for a healthy and colourful hit in your mac and cheese recipe. Or just chop your favourite squash, and sauté it in a little butter and olive oil until nicely caramelized to serve alongside grilled fish, chicken or pork.

The other bonus with winter squash is longevity. While delicate summer squash (think zucchini and patty pans) should be picked young and eaten within a week, winter squash can be stored for months in a cool, dry location. Once cooked, roasted or mashed, squash also freezes well.

But the thick skins that make winter squash long-lasting keepers also make them difficult to peel. So roast or steam your squash unpeeled, then scoop out the flesh, or serve with the skin on (in many cases, it’s perfectly edible, too).



CHOOSE THE PERFECT PUMPKIN

Scientists believe squash were first domesticated in North America 10,000 years ago, and they are as popular as ever today. Here’s a look at some of the colourful specimens you’ll find in local markets:


Acorn – A small, deeply ribbed, green squash is shaped like an acorn with dark yellow, slightly sweet flesh. Just slice in half, remove the seeds and bake with a little butter or stuff with wild rice or sausage risotto for a full meal.


Butternut – This buff, bowling pear-shaped squash is great when you want perfect cubes of squash. It’s relatively easy to peel and the top is a solid chunk of orange flesh, that can be roasted or mashed to a silky puree. The rind is tough, but edible.


of translucent “spaghetti”. Cut squash into thick rings before roasting or steaming for the longest strands, then serve with olive oil, chopped herbs and garlic, or almost any sauce.


Sweet Dumpling – A little, round, white and green or orange striped squash, it’s perfect to serve whole, stuff or roast in wedges. The flesh is sweet and delicate, and carmelizes nicely when roasted.


Buttercup – This flat, dark green squash can be roasted or steamed, mashed and added to soups. The flavour is sweet and nutty, and the flesh is dense, dark orange and dry.


Delicata – An oval ribbed squash, these white and green striped specimens are starchy and reminiscent of sweet potatoes. You can eat the skin, too.


Hubbard – These big, knobby blue-grey squash are best when roasted. The flesh is very sweet, and gets sweeter in storage, which can be five months, due the exceptionally thick skin.


Kabocha – Also called Japanese Pumpkin, this dark green, pumpkin-shaped squash has a very sweet, chestnut flavour and fluffy, potato-like texture that’s good for mashing, filling ravioli or tempura.


Turban – This large, multi-coloured squash looks like a turban, with a ring around a bulbous centre. It’s doubtless the most dramatic looking squash, but actually not the tastiest.


Pumpkin – This is the big orange beauty we carve into scary faces and puree for pumpkin pies, and there are blue pumpkins (actually grey-blue or teal), heirlooms from Australia. Use a marker to draw a face on your Hallowe’en pumpkin, so you can enjoy it in soup or risotto later.