Winter squash is such a metaphor for life, isn’t it? Crack through its carapace-like shell and it’s little more than raw, bitter flesh, stringy and seed-laden. You’re a tough nut to crack, Acorn. Not much buttery there on first opening, Buttercup.
Still — and also like life, right? — with a fair amount of work and time, maybe a little bit of sugar (and some actual butter), winter squash comes around to be more than tolerable, delicious even.
Oh, but for the easier, softer way of the summer squash, eh zucchini? “Pattypan” sounds like a game or a toy (and looks it). But let’s go right ahead and call winter squash the “maybe-tomorrow” vegetable.
At least we hereabouts can take much pride to know that the winter squash is thoroughly American — North, South and Central. Its name comes from the Narragansett “askutasquash” (“eaten raw,” though referring only to the immature fruit). Plant archeologists have determined that farming it dates back 5,000 years to the region we call Illinois; 10,000 to that of Florida; and 15,000 years to Meso- and South America.
It was central to whatever was the kitchen and home in all these places, one of the “holy trinity” (or “Three Sisters”) of squash, beans and corn, a nutritionally complete diet that sustained and grew the indigenous populations of all the Americas. Its shells were containers, scoops, “dishware.” Its saponaceous-rich flesh sometimes washed clothing. Everyone snacked on its seeds.
Botanically, winter squash comes under the genus Cucurbita (hence, “cucumber,” along with all watermelon-like fruits, also a type of squash) and breaks off into two or three main “families”: Cucurbita pepo and Cucurbita maxima/Cucurbita moschata. All this Latin is merely in service of noting whether the Cucurbita’s skin is soft or hard.
The “pepo” varieties, by and large, sport soft, edible skin. (Zucchini, a pepo, descends from a Cucurbita first grown in Mesoamerica upwards of 7,000 years ago but bred in Milan, Italy, in the late 1800s.) Our word “pumpkin” derives from “pepo” by way of old French and old English (“pompon” and “pompion,” respectively) and goes all the way back to ancient Greek, “pepon,” meaning “large gourd.”
The other Cucurbitas (C. maxima and C. moschata) are hard-shelled, way so. They are so many and with fanciful names such as delicata (“Yo, over here, my skin isn’t that hard”); spaghetti (“Wanna see a sweet trick?”); and hubbard, its name onomatopoetic for the thud (and unsightliness) of this largest of the Cucurbita maxima.
How to (safely) ninja a winter squash: It can be a hard nut to crack, so proceed carefully and slowly. I place any winter squash that I’m dealing with onto a wet and wrung-out kitchen towel, a sort of non-slip “bed.” (Alternatively, you may make the bed atop a cutting board.)
Splitting a winter squash is best done with a cleaver and a kitchen mallet. Most of us own neither. In their places, use your best, heaviest chef’s knife and a small metal saucepot (or even a hammer).
If the squash isn’t stable (that is, it tends to “roll out” from under the knife or cleaver, a very dangerous proposition) try to make a small slice that will flatten one side and lay the squash on that side.
Now, there are two ways to open the squash: One is to place the blade of the knife or cleaver dead-center atop the squash and forcibly whack the blade’s (or cleaver’s) top. The other is to insert the point of the knife or cleaver into the squash and work your way down into the squash, beginning to separate it into halves or sections.
You cannot pretend that a winter squash is just a large potato. Holding it with one hand and conventionally cutting it with the other is just too dangerous. (Exceptions, of course, are the peelable butternut and delicata, although in their raw state, still unwieldy and slippery, so be careful.)
Kabocha squash no nimono (Japanese simmered kabocha squash)
Adapted from carolinescooking.com, justonecookbook.com and chopstickchronicles.com. Makes 12-15 pieces, depending on size.
1 pound raw kabocha squash (about 1/2 whole squash), rinsed clean
1 1/2 cup dashi (or water)
2 teaspoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons sake
2 teaspoons white cane sugar (or 1 tablespoon mirin)
Prepare the kabocha by cutting it into long wedges, retaining the skin (when cooked, kabocha skin is eminently edible), and cutting each wedge into 5-6 pieces of equal size. Lay the pieces, skin side down, in a saucepan that will accommodate all of them in 1 layer snuggly.
Mix together the remaining ingredients and pour the liquid in and around the kabocha pieces. Over medium-high heat, bring the saucepan to a boil and then lower the heat significantly and simmer the squash with the pot lid slightly ajar for 15-20 minutes, or until a paring knife goes effortlessly into a test piece.
Remove from the heat, cover the pan and let sit for 30 minutes or more to cool down. Serve warm, cool or at room temperature, perhaps garnished with matchsticks of fresh, peeled ginger.
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