One of the ways I realize winter is coming is that somebody approaches me with a question about how to cook squash. Most people are afraid and intimidated by this lovely, thick-skinned fruit. It doesn't need to be this way.
Ah, squash. Chocked with vitamins, beta-carotenes, starch and flavor, squash is the guardian angel of fall and winter. In its many incarnations, it can be eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner; and, of course, dessert. Yes, dessert! Remember, pumpkin pie isn't just for pumpkins ... it's for all the winter squashes, and each type lends a signature twist to the pie. Years ago, some friends and I had a pumpkin and squash pie business. This gave me the opportunity to prove, scientifically, that one can live for weeks on squash pie alone, three meals a day plus dessert.
Why is it that so many people are cornered by the stale advice that squash is best cooked by cutting it in half and baking face-down on an oiled cookie sheet until soft? Yes, you can cook squash this way. And yes, it's really easy, and delicious. Baked squash is also a good first step to more complex recipes, like ravioli with squash stuffing drenched in sherry morel sauce, or squash cookies.
But if you just want to cook and eat a squash for dinner, this technique only scratches the surface of possibility, and faces you with the question: What do you dress this baked squash with to make it more interesting? Most people resort to butter, or soy sauce or maple syrup (as if squash isn't sweet enough). Nothing is wrong with any of these options, from time to time, but I have a hunch that our cultural habit of cooking squash this way is responsible for the widespread conviction that squash is boring. I mean, consider the tomato. What would we think of the tomato if all we ever did were bake it and place it on the side of the plate?
The easiest, quickest advice that I can offer out of the baked squash vortex is that you can do with squash anything that you would do with a potato. Bake it, steam it, fry it, mash it, smash it, bake it again with cheese ...
What I usually do is this: First, cut open the squash and scoop out the seeds with a spoon. Then place the squash, cut side down, on the cutting board, and cut off the hard peel with a sturdy knife. Cut the squash flesh into small cubes, put them in a pot with enough water to cover it, and boil with a tight-fitting lid.
While the squash is cooking, get some goodies going in a fry pan. Start with oil or butter and/or chopped bacon. Saut onions, garlic, ginger, peppers ... whatever you like. Then, when the squash in the pot is soft and drained, stir in the goodies from the pan and taste. Season with black pepper, salt or soy sauce, and cider vinegar. Add water if you want squash soup, and slowly cook it down to thicken. When almost ready to serve, stir in some chunks of a sturdy cheese, like feta.
If that's too vague and micromanagement is what you want, here's an exact recipe for coconut squash soup.
Spread one cup shredded coconut on a sheet pan and toast at 350 degrees until golden (about five minutes). Heat one tablespoon canola or grapeseed oil in a pot on medium heat. Saut one chopped onion until translucent. Add two tablespoons dark mustard seed, one cubic inch of chopped ginger, one tablespoon turmeric, one (or more) chopped hot peppers and one tablespoon curry powder. (I like Bengali-style curry powder the best here). Saut this mixture, stirring constantly, for about a minute.
Then add a cup of chicken or veggie stock and seven cups squash, peeled and cubed as described above. My favorite squashes for this are blue Hubbard, kabocha, buttercup, red curry and sweet meat. Add enough water to just cover the squash. Simmer until tender, and then stir in one can coconut milk. Remove from heat and pure the soup, ideally with a submersible blender (aka "the tool"). A whisk works too. Or leave it chunky. Stir in one cup frozen peas and the toasted coconut. Season with salt and cider vinegar.
You'll never call squash boring again.
-- Chef Boy Ari
Rediscovering traditional foods
Make reservations now for the next Colorado Springs Slow Food event, a trip down memory lane celebrating down-home dishes, prepared with local products by Chef Eric Viedt of The Margarita at Pine Creek. Dirk Stamp of The Wine Seller in Monument will pair the dishes with wines, and diners will hear farmer Dan Hobbs, organizer of Tres Rios Co-op and the Colorado Farm and Art Market, talk about his experiences attending Terra Madre, the international Slow Food event held last month in Turin, Italy. The dinner, including wine and other beverages, costs $50 for Slow Food members, $60 for nonmembers. It happens on Tuesday, Nov. 16 at 6:30 p.m. Call 598-8667 for reservations or Michele at 633-3043 with questions.