Having now seen off Hallowe’en and the threat of wasted Jack O’Lantern pumpkins, I’m turning my attention to other members of the Winter Squash family.
We probably have Hallowe’en to thank for introducing the British public to the delights of Winter Squash, although Jack O’Lantern not being the most flavoursome representative of the family, may also have put some people off exploring further. If that includes you, please let me at least put my case in their favour.
In my book, first amongst their positive attributes is their keeping ability. Provided they are picked undamaged, with a good “handle”, most of the Winter Squash family will store for several months, their eating quality absolutely intact. As a rough rule of thumb, the thicker the skin the longer they will keep.
Secondly there is the sweet and substantial flesh. This makes Winter Squash a candidate not merely for an interesting side dish (although they are certainly that) but they can easily stand alone as the star of a lunch or supper main course. The sweetness makes them a vegetable that most children love. And where I would use chicken stock to give depth to most vegetable soups or risotto, Winter Squash are punchy enough for a vegetable stock, or even, at a pinch, just water.
Is the flesh sweet enough to use in desserts? American Pumpkin Pie is perhaps the most famous of Winter Squash recipes, but I’m afraid this is one application that I haven’t yet learnt to appreciate. That said, and having recognised the moistness provided by carrots in Carrot Cake, I have now started to use pumpkin in my Christmas Puddings as you will have seen in my Jack O’Lantern recipes. I would also happily eat some pumpkin “savoury” dishes in place of dessert – pumpkin ravioli with a walnut sauce for example.
Of course not all Winter Squash are created equal, and whilst I may have personal favourites, it is probably more helpful to consider the characteristics of the most common members of the family and the type of dishes to which they are best suited.
Jack O’Lantern – because of their size the flesh is loose and watery, but this makes it good at absorbing other flavours, as in pickling, and also not too dominant to lend moisture to cakes and puddings.
Butternut - this is a great all-rounder and widely available. It is not too sweet, neither is it too wet or dry. The shape and thin skin make it easy to peel. Good for roasting, soup and “speltotto”.
Crown Prince – This has a fantastic flavour but the flesh is very dry and the skin not easy to cut. The dry flesh makes it ideal for gnocchi. Iron Bark reputedly tastes even better, but as the name suggests, it is very hard to cut.
Acorn – the flesh is, frankly, watery and bland but it’s small size makes it ideal for one person – use like Jack O’Lantern.
Spaghetti Squash – the popularity of this squash appears to owe much to its name as it is now being used as a carbohydrate free substitute. It certainly doesn’t warrant attention for its flavour, which is very bland, but this does mean it can absorb strong flavoured sauces. Its texture does have some similarity to pasta (although more Angel Hair than Spaghetti). The skin is very hard, so perhaps easiest to roast uncut.
Marina di Chioggia – the thick, knobbly skin makes this squash look somewhat like a toad! The flesh however is firm and sweet and makes an excellent ravioli stuffing. Crown Prince is the nearest substitute.
Growing squash takes quite a lot of ground and given how well they store I have now left the growing to others to free my garden up for vegetables that need picking fresh. If however you would like to grow your own, and it is often the only way to get some of the more unusual varieties, the best selection of seeds are from www.seedsofitaly.com
General Cooking Tips
The flavour and sweetness of squash is intensified by roasting, my usual method of cooking squash. If you have chosen one of the really hard-skinned varieties you may have to roast it whole before being able to cut. For easy to peel types, like Butternut, I dice the flesh and then toss it in olive oil before baking. I usually keep some olive oil flavoured with rosemary, which is perfect for this, but you can just scatter fresh leaves if using plain oil.
Whilst the uncut raw squash store well, once cut this is not true and it is best to cook the entire squash, no matter how large, and use the leftover cooked squash in another recipe. Hence roast squash as a side vegetable is often followed by soup or ravioli for lunch the following day. The fact that the squash has already been cooked just makes these follow-on dishes much quicker.
In addition to the recipes given here for Jack O’Lantern pumpkins, you will find my recipes for pumpkin ravioli, gnocchi, soup and gratin here. Recipes for using pumpkin in a dessert and for using Spaghetti Squash as a carb-free substitute have been supplied by Annie Levy of https://kitchencounterculture121.wordpress.com/