Posted On: 10/01/2009
It’s getting to be that pumpkin time of year. From hobby stores to front porches, you can’t escape the gleaming orange grins. Pumpkins are pleasant to look upon but, as anyone who’s tried to make purée from a Halloween decoration knows, woefully deficient in kitchen value. Instead, visit the winter squash pile in any farmstand or supermarket to face a stunning number of kitchen-worthy relatives. Here’s a quick guide to choosing and cooking them. Don’t hesitate, set up your curing shelf and try them all for sweet, starchy solace on chilly fall nights.
When you’re looking for starchy comfort, try an acorn. This squash is popular with farmers because it matures quickly. Unfortunately, this short maturing time doesn’t give flavors much time to develop. Jere Gettle of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Mansfield, Mo., admires the interesting colors of the acorns, but admitted that “all of them taste about the same.”
Look for: Jack Be Little. It may look like a miniature pumpkin, but this variety is officially an acorn squash. Just ask Amy Goldman, author of The Compleat Squash and one of the nation’s experts on heirloom vegetables. “It’s an absolute favorite for flavor,” she said.
If you’ve never seen – or eaten – a blue pumpkin, you’re in for a big surprise. Not just for the eyes, but also for the tongue. These varieties are bred from Cucurbita maxima, which means, according to Goldman, they have the best flavor and least stringiness of all winter squashes. And, Gettle said, “they last forever” – 18 months or more. A few of these in the cellar should last all winter.
Look for: Silver Bell. This one is so pretty that you won’t want to eat it, but you should. Goldman described it as “super delicious.” It’s rare, so if you are so fortunate as to find it, buy a whole carillon of Silver Bells. Otherwise, try some of the other blues; Queensland Blue, with a mossy slate color, is another of Goldman’s favorites.
Butternut may not be the most glamorous-looking of squash, but it is reliable and easy to find. At JFires’ Market Bistro in Waterloo, Ill., chef John Sewell cuts butternuts in half, roasts them, then just scoops out the flesh to make a mash or purée suitable for pairing with many dishes.
Look for: Sucrine du Berry. “If I had to pick one winter squash for cooking, it would probably be this one,” Gettle said. “It’s a short French butternut with deep, almost red flesh. Very good.”
Once you meet a delicata, you’ll always recognize it. The color is startling – muted orange or cream with deep green brushstrokes. You’d think they were handpainted. But, no, these are works of nature’s art. When fully mature, delicatas “can be very sweet,” Gettle said. But Goldman noted that “it’s very common for growers to harvest too early.”
Look for: Sweet Dumpling. This is the one to try – Goldman described it as “great.” This variety is a good partner for whitefish, which can be overwhelmed by the stronger flavor and denser texture of other squash.
FRENCH HEIRLOOM PUMPKINS
You don’t have to give up on the idea of pie made from a true pumpkin. The French varieties often have muted colors that fit in well with modern tastes and décor. Plus, they taste fabulous.
Look for: Musquee de Provence. “They’re beautiful objects,” Goldman said, “[The] color of milk chocolate and just as addictive. None finer.” Sounds like a few of these would be gorgeous around the house at Thanksgiving. Then you can make them into a pie for Christmas.
WINTER LUXURY PIE PUMPKIN
This pumpkin is in a class of its own. It looks exactly like the archetypical pie pumpkin, round with a fine dark stem, but with a light overlay of tan netting (somewhat like that of a cantaloupe). Goldman called it her first choice for a traditional pumpkin and rhapsodized about its velvety texture. Its smaller size – about 6 pounds on average – makes it suitable for home cooks.
The cure for so-so squash
Starchy, creamy, nutty, buttery and sweet. This is what winter squash should be. Too often, though, our squash falls short. They’re mealy, stringy, pasty or watery. What’s the secret to getting a good squash? According to Goldman, curing is the key. She suggested that winter squash be allowed to rest in a 70-degree, well-ventilated spot out of direct light for two to three weeks after harvest. (She washes the squash with a 10 percent bleach solution before curing to remove all debris.) During this curing period, the squash loses some of its excess water and the starches begin to transform into sugars. After the cure, cook the squash or store it in a cool place for up to a year – the flavor will continue to develop over time. Ask when you buy, but chances are the squashes have not been cured.
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