I came late to the squash fan club. Although my childhood was spent in the Southwest, where some of these versatile vegetables originated, I don't remember eating more than pumpkin on a regular basis.
My mother did her vegetable gardening in the canned goods aisle at the local grocery store, and pumpkin was a staple only because all our neighbors were Mexicans who didn't wait around for Thanksgiving to eat it. They baked it into sweet empanadas all year. They savored the seeds, roasted and salted, as pepitas. And they even taught us to eat the blossoms of the vine, battered and deep-fried.
But it was not until I ripened into a professional eater in New York City that my own appetite for squash truly bloomed. Partly it was piqued by exposure, since so many restaurants -- ethnic and American -- showcase squash in everything from soup to tarts, from risotto to enchiladas. But it was also stimulated by availability; any produce stand now routinely stocks a minimum of six to eight varieties, in every shape and color.
When I went off a decade ago to train as a chef, I had never tasted even a squash as mundane as butternut. My addiction started during a class about vegetables when Stephanie, the one student more interested in restaurant management than cooking, produced what she justifiably boasted was the best dish of the day. It was nothing more than a simple puree of butternut with a bit of honey, a little butter and fresh thyme, but it was simply spectacular.
Squash also comes in so many varieties that a cook can shine for weeks producing different dishes using essentially the same ingredient. Most varieties are sold year-round, but this remains one vegetable guaranteed to keep us aware of the seasons.
Summer is high time for crooknecks and sunbursts and cymlings, not to mention squash blossoms and baby squash. In fall, when the zucchini are swelling to blimp size, the first winter varieties roll off the vines: pumpkin and turban, buttercup and Hokkaido.
And even in darkest winter, when potatoes and onions are the main staples, there is always some kind of squash available to brighten up both markets and menus.
The population explosion in the squash cornucopia is partly due to a new realization that this varied vegetable doesn't just taste good, it is also one of the best choices that a health-conscious eater can make.
Winter squash in particular are extremely high in beta carotene, the antioxidant that has been credited with reducing the risk of everything from common ailments to cancer.
All squash are also low in calories, high in other vitamins and minerals and full of fiber. And at a time when nutritionists are advocating eating five portions of fruits and vegetables daily, there's a squash for each serving, from muffins to main dishes.
Squash has been a vital ingredient in North American kitchens for literally centuries. Along with beans and corn, it formed the holy trinity of the native diet long before Columbus set sail.
The name "squash" actually comes from the Narragansett Indian word, "askutasquash," meaning "a green thing eaten raw," which sounds like the worst way to consume it. Once the Pilgrims came along, they adapted squash to their diets and squash found a place on the fire.
Variation on a theme
This variation on classic pumpkin soup takes a little more time than the butternut bisque but has more flavor nuances. It is rich but cream-free and looks spectacular served in a hollowed-out winter squash shell. A turban squash can be used in place of the pumpkin.
Caramelized pumpkin and onion soup with smoked turkey
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 large (approximately 3 pounds) pie pumpkin
1 teaspoon plus 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 large yellow onions, sliced thin
2 carrots, cut into fine julienne
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground sage
4 cups turkey or chicken stock, preferably homemade
salt, freshly ground white pepper
1/4 pound high-quality smoked turkey, cut into 2 1/4 -inch-wide strips
1/2 cup shredded Gruyere cheese
Cut pumpkin in half and scrape out seeds. Brush cut surfaces lightly with 1 teaspoon oil, then place cut side down in glass baking dish. Bake at 375 degrees until flesh is very soft and cut sides are slightly caramelized, about 1 hour. Let cool, then scrape out pulp.
While squash bakes, warm remaining 3 tablespoons oil in large soup pot over medium heat. Add onions and carrots and cook, stirring often, until soft, 15 minutes. Sprinkle with sugar and continue cooking, stirring often, until vegetables are browned and caramelized, 10 to 15 minutes longer.
Stir in sage, stock and pumpkin pulp and bring to boil. Let cool slightly. Process soup, in batches, in blender and puree until smooth. Return puree to soup pot and reheat gently, but do not allow to boil. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Ladle into individual bowls -- or into hollowed-out winter squash shell -- and garnish with turkey strips and cheese.
Pairing corn with squash
An old-time Shaker recipe, this sublime combination of crookneck squash and corn makes an ideal partner for simple grilled fish or roast chicken or pork.
Shaker yellow velvet
Makes 4 servings
3 ears corn, shucked
1/2 cup chicken stock (preferably homemade) or water
3 yellow crookneck squash, each about 6 inches long
1 cup whipping cream
1 tablespoon snipped fresh chives
salt, freshly ground white pepper
Bring water to boil in steamer pan. Place corn on steamer rack. Cover and steam until very tender, 5 to 10 minutes. Let cool. Using sharp knife, cut off kernels from cobs. Place corn in skillet with chicken stock and set aside.
Trim ends of squash. Cut into quarters lengthwise, then cut crosswise into 1/2 -inch-thick slices. Add to skillet. Cover and cook over medium heat until squash is tender, 10 minutes. Uncover and cook over medium-high heat until all liquid evaporates, 5 minutes longer. Stir in cream and cook, stirring occasionally, until cream thickens, 5 minutes more. Stir in chives and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.
A sweet side to pumpkin
I discovered kolaches, the Czech version of Danish pastries, while living in Nebraska and found the not-too-sweet dough takes quite well to pumpkin. The filling is usually apricots or poppy seeds, but the chutney works better with this version. These are best eaten the same day they're baked.
Pumpkin and chutney kolaches
Makes about 24 kolaches
1 ( 1/4 -ounce) package active dry yeast (scant 1 tablespoon)
4 to 4 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened, plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup milk
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 large egg yolks, at room temperature
1/2 cup cooked, pureed pumpkin, fresh or canned
1/2 cup mango chutney, finely chopped
Combine yeast and 1 1/2 cups flour in large bowl. Combine 1/2 cup butter, milk, sugar and salt in small saucepan and heat until just scalded (about 115 degrees). Pour warm mixture into yeast mixture. Add egg yolks and pumpkin and, using electric mixer set on low speed, beat 1 minute. Increase speed to high and beat 3 minutes longer. Using wooden spoon, stir in enough of the remaining 2 1/2 to 3 cups flour to make soft dough.
Turn out dough onto lightly floured surface and knead until soft and elastic, 8 to 10 minutes. Shape into ball and place in well-buttered bowl. Turn dough to coat surfaces with butter. Cover bowl with kitchen towel and let rise in warm, draft-free spot until doubled in bulk, 1 1/2 hours.
Punch down dough. Tear off pieces the size of golf balls and form into smooth balls. Arrange 3 inches apart on buttered baking sheets. Cover with kitchen towel and let dough rise again until doubled in bulk, 45 minutes.
Flatten rolls slightly. Make small depression in center of each. Spoon 1 teaspoon mango chutney in each depression. Brush rolls lightly with remaining 2 tablespoons melted butter. Bake at 400 degrees until golden brown, 12 to 15 minutes. Serve warm.