Flash in the Pan 

The wonderful world of winter squash

Squash, the ultimate fruit of all trades, can be anything you want it to be. In today’s story, we’re referring specifically to winter squash, the varieties allowed to fully ripen into hard-shelled, durable beauties with mature seeds.

These squash can be prepared sweet or savory, and can be used for virtually any part of the meal. Squash’s high carbohydrate content makes it a good candidate as a base, like rice or pasta, upon which the saucier elements are loaded. Or squash can be the sauce itself, either as a bit player in, say, a coconut curry, or as the body of the sauce, pureed with chicken stock, paprika, nutmeg, garlic and cream for a smothering finish to your spicy enchiladas.

As a side dish, squash need be little more than itself. Cut one into chunks, drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper, and bake, stirring occasionally, until crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside. These nibblings have a different kind of charm as leftovers the next day. Toss them in your lunchbox. Toss them in your salad. Toss them in bacon grease and stir-fry them with fresh garlic and pre-browned meat, and fold into a tortilla. Or fry those chunks in olive oil and when they’re browned, push them to the side of the pan and scramble a few eggs. Serve with toast.

Squash can be made into a spread, served as soup or it can be left entirely alone. A baked delicata on the half shell, left to cool on the stovetop, needs nothing at all, not even a utensil. Hold it like a piece of pizza and eat it, skin and all.

Squash can even be used as tableware, as in a bowl of elk stew I recently ate at a squash-cooking contest. The competitors presented the stew in a hollowed out baked kabocha squash that served as an edible bowl.

And then there’s pumpkin pie, which can be made from most any squash. Pumpkins are just another type of winter squash. In fact, in many places in the world “pumpkin” literally translates to “winter squash.”

Years ago some friends and I had a pumpkin pie business. We were always testing different recipes, always had tons of half-eaten pies lying around. That’s when I proved, scientifically, that it’s possible to live for days, happily, on nothing but pumpkin pie.  

We made pies from blue hubbards, kuri, buttercup, kabocha, acorn, delicata and sweet meat, primarily. And we had a different recipe for each variety—starchier varieties like kabocha, for example, had more eggs and cream, while the sweet, dense and creamy delicatas needed less. Sometimes we used some of the classic pumpkin pie spices, like mace, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and cloves. We were also known to mix in chocolate chunks.

Usually we sweetened with sugar, but sometimes maple syrup or even a touch of molasses. And sometimes we went full-on savory, like squash pies with meat and vegetables inside.

Since it’s the season for pumpkin pies, here’s a recipe that can be used as a template. Feel free to doctor it to your own specifications. First, cut the squash in half and scoop out the seeds and guts. (But make sure to save the seeds so you can toast them with salt, pepper and olive oil.) Bake the squash face down on a baking tray with a coating of water on the bottom at 375 degrees until a fork easily pierces the flesh—about 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool.

Scoop out the squash flesh and, for one pie, combine 2 cups squash, 1/2 cup of cream, and 3–4 eggs. If going sweet, then sweeten with brown sugar or maple syrup to your liking; the average recipe calls for about 1 cup of sugar per pie. Add the pie spices of your choice (or nuts, chocolate, etc.). For a fancy variation, separate the eggs, mix the yolks into the filling, then beat the whites stiff and fold them into the final filling.

If you’re going for a more savory pie, skip the sweetener. Instead, brown any meats, cook and season the greens, potatoes, etc., and then mix it in. Add cheese if you want.

I wish I had space to help you make the crust. But since I don’t, and teaching crust making benefits from visual aids anyway, check out this online video for a butter crust, which is what I used when I was a pro: www.chow.com/stories/10196.

I recently helped judge a “Squash Off” organized by Students for Real Food at the University of Montana. Competing teams concocted squash-based meals with as many local ingredients as possible. Entries included squash and lentil burgers with apple and onion chutney, butternut squash lasagna with goat cheese béchamel and home-cured prosciutto, beer-battered delicata fries with cayenne aioli, the aforementioned elk stew in a squash bowl, and spaghetti squash birds’ nests (pre-baked in a cupcake tin) filled with poached eggs and topped with bacon bits.

The incredible diversity on display at this fun event proved that squash is the most versatile ingredient on the shelf. They’re in season and available from local sources, so it’s time to get your squash on.  

Ask Ari: Thanksgiving for vegans

Q: Dear Flash,

I’m hosting my brother and his family for Thanksgiving and my sister-in-law is a hardcore vegan. I’m a locavore and my diet includes local meats, if I know where they’re from. I want my brother’s wife to be comfortable and have enough to eat, but I also don’t want to compromise my own style.

I’m thinking about getting a Tofurky—one of those soy-based meat substitute things that is supposedly made for this kind of situation. What do you think?

—Thanksgiving Bind

Well TB, I’m not a fan of the Tofurky because the name embodies a kind of ungraceful schizoid tendency that vegetarians sometimes fall into. If you’re a vegetarian, fine, good for you. But why do you need a Tofurky in order to feel like you fit in at the table? Why do you want to fit in with a bunch of meat eaters? What are you ashamed of? Embrace your diet!

Okay, that’s my rant to Tofurkarians.

That said, I have tried Tofurky, as well as other products made by Turtle Island Foods, and they taste pretty damn good. So I’m not knocking the product as much as the name, and the ambiguous self-identity of some vegetarians who eat it.

I think the best way to make your sister-in-law feel welcome is to reach out to her before Thanksgiving and include her in the planning process. She’s probably better at cooking vegan than you are. So instead of flailing out of your comfort zone to accommodate her, let her teach you something. You’ll be crying and hugging before the meal even starts.

By the way vegetarians, you may be excited to hear that a new line of genetically modified soybeans, which have omega-3 fatty acid levels as high as fish, have passed the first stage of human trials, according to New Scientist.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.
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