Flash in the Pan 

The fruits of squash

It amazes me when people claim not to know what to do with squash. Because, other than pour milk over it in your cereal bowl, what can't you do with squash? Can you fry it in bacon grease? Check. Toss the resulting browned chunks in a salad? Check. Simmer it in soup? Stuff it into tamales? Flip it in pancakes? Sweeten it into custard? Spice it into curry? Knead it into gnocchi? Check.

If that's too overwhelming a list of options, an easy rule of thumb for cooking squash is "do anything you might do with a potato." While squash behaves mostly spud-like, virtually any root vegetable recipe can be applied to squash. That's one reason I believe winter squash deserves to be considered an honorary member of that family.

Technically, though, squash is a fruit. So why do the hard-shelled varieties, aka the winter squash, deserve a spot in the pantheon of winter storage vegetables alongside carrots, garlic, onions, rutabagas, parsnips, beets and celery root?

In addition to behaving much like roots in the kitchen, winter squash will occupy your kitchen at the same time the roots do—fall and winter—making squash one of the only non-root storage crops. Like its adopted cousins the roots, squash is kept completely unprocessed, alive and dormant. Pirates used to do something similar with tortoises, stacking them in their ship holds for months, where the animals' slow metabolism allowed them to stay alive with no food or water. When the occasion called, a tortoise would be retrieved and eaten, like grabbing a squash from the pantry.

Living storage crops like roots, squash and the occasional Galapagos giant tortoise mean fresh food anywhere, any time. Unprocessed foods are also much easier to put away than pickles, salsa, pesto, chutney or other such value-added products. Like root vegetables, squash basically stores itself. Keep them cool, dry and well ventilated, arranged one layer deep with no individual touching another, and periodically inspect for mold, rot and any other form of damage. Remove any offending fruits before the damage spreads.

To demonstrate how completely winter squash belongs among the roots, I'll explain how to include it in that most quintessential of root dishes: oven-roasted roots.

Starchy winter squashes like buttercup, sunshine, kabocha and blue hubbard roast best, in my opinion, because the starch adds body and the chunks don't wither away. I tend to avoid pumpkin, butternut and other watery squashes. They can work, but they add moisture to the pan, which slows the cooking process, and they shrink during cooking more than I like. As a matter of course I recommend avoiding spaghetti squash as well—not just in this recipe, but in all recipes. Spaghetti squash is an agricultural aberration that should have been selected against. Bad flavor, no body, weird stringiness.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ARI LEVAUX

After removing the stem and blossom ends, a squash can be cut like a potato. Slice it in half, cut the halves in half, and keep going until you have cubes. Don't bother removing the seeds from the chunks. They add to the finished product. Like most roots, squash can be cooked with or without its skin. All winter squash skin is edible, but some peels make for better eating than others.

Since different roots cook at different rates, I add them to the roasting pan in sequence. I cut the squash and potatoes first, tossing them in the pan with olive oil and placing the pan in the oven. While these roast you can cut carrots, celeriac and parsnips, none of which need cooking at all, and certainly can do with less oven time than squash and potatoes. I like to add a few whole garlic cloves with the carrots, tossing and turning the pan's contents at every opportunity.

When the pan is full, stir in your choice of aromatic spices such as oregano, rosemary, and/or thyme, and a little (or a lot) of paprika or red chile powder if desired. I also like to add garlic powder and onion powder, the only inclusion of onion in this dish, as raw onions are too watery. I also forego red beets, even though I love them, because I don't love a uniformly purple pile of roots. I also skip turnips, rutabagas and other spicy roots that disrupt the mellow flavor I'm going for. A final spice: the smallest pinch of nutmeg.

While it's baking, between 300 and 400 degrees, I make a mixture of raw, chopped garlic and olive oil in which to toss the roots when they're finished.

Eventually the pan will stop steaming as the chunks dry out, and then they will start to brown and crisp on the outside, while softening inside. It takes between 30 and 60 minutes to get there, depending on the temperature. Remove the roots and toss them in your garlic-oil mixture, season with salt and pepper, and serve with or without mayo on the side. Within the symphony of flavors and textures, the nutty crunch of roasted squash seeds stands out, perfectly in place.

Roasted roots—and squash—can be a meal in itself or a starting point for many others. The same raw ingredients can be added to the pan of a half-baked bird as it's coming in for landing. Roasted roots can be mashed together with fresh garlic and butter for a textured but mushy medley. Roasted roots can be added to soup, where their oven crisp offers a hedge against sogginess. Leftover squash and roots can be refried in bacon grease and served alongside eggs.

I suppose you could, on second thought, even eat squash in a bowl with milk.

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