Disappearing winter squash

Seeing ‘invisible’ food

January 12, 2011

As readers of this column may know, I always use New Year’s Day, or some day around the first, to make a clean and fresh start in my kitchen, a room that suffers daily abuse.

Mostly this involves cleaning out the refrigerator, firmly tossing out condiments that haven’t budged from their spots during the last year, assiduously making an effort to use whatever needs using, and combing through the freezer just to make sure I know what’s there, so that it will get used before the next crops of tomatoes, peaches, and persimmons appear.

Sibley squash.

While always rewarding, this is also a rather sobering exercise, for it never fails to reveal evidence of gross neglect, lapsed intentions, and a mysterious accumulation of crumbs and debris. A jar of probiotic pills that promised either youth or weight loss — I can no longer decipher the oil-stained label to see which — has been residing in the fridge for years. Tin foil that once served as a shelf liner is now held fast to the plastic by an unknown substance with a yellowish hue. What had I been thinking?

What occurred to me this year, after cleaning the refrigerator and then moving on to the cupboards, is the way our foods can become visual fixtures in our lives, at which point they disappear. Jars of beans at some point shift from the foreground, where they exist as food, to a visual background — no different, really, from books on a shelf. Pickled beets and jars of canned pears have taken up permanent residence on one shelf just because they looked so beautiful I could never bear to use them.

Still, there’s a point where I’ve ceased to see them unless I really make an effort to, and that’s when I find that I’ve been harboring them and other foods, some for years. Witness the jar of red Santa Maria beans so old that even a pressure cooker would be challenged to soften them.

You might think this couldn’t happen to my large winter squash, but it has. Those gorgeous heirlooms that I bought at the Boulder farmers’ market in October have assumed dominion on a large round table ever since. They sit there the way some people pile up stacks of art books and vases of roses: the soft blue-green Sibleys, the elegant lace-covered Winter Luxury Pie pumpkin, the dark and warty Marina de Chioggia, the ever-handsome Rouge Vif d’Etampes, and others. They warm the room with their rich colors, varied shapes, and eccentricities, and have brought me much joy over the past three months.

But they, too, like the jars of beans and pickled beets, have become a somewhat blurred feature in my domestic landscape. After moving them so that the table could be set for a party, they suddenly came back into view. Not only are they beautiful to behold (and big and heavy), they’re also edible, and they should be eaten before they dry up inside.

One of the challenges for many is how to deal with larger-than-usual cucurbits. What do you do with a 12-pound squash? How do you cut it? This is one time you want a big, heavy, chef’s knife, and here’s what you can do:

  1. Insert the point of the knife into the squash, press down hard to plunge it in, then pull the knife towards you, in a rocking motion if need be. Chances are the squash will start to crack. Loosen the knife, reposition it along the breaking line, and repeat. Eventually you will succeed in cutting it into two more or less equal pieces. Don’t worry if they’re not the same size; they probably won’t be. (If cutting a large squash into pieces is beyond the capacity of your knife or your strength, bake it in the oven whole until it softens. Then it will be easy to halve, and the seeds will slip out with ease.)
  2. Scrape out the seeds.
  3. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. This is optional, but I like to do it.
  4. Turn the squash cut side down on the sheet pan and bake at around 350 degrees (or whatever temperature is convenient if you’re baking something else at the same time) until it is very soft when you press on it with your fingers. With a large specimen, this can take as long as two hours. You can brush the cut surfaces with oil first, but it really isn’t necessary. The squash, if it’s not too old, may exude some clear liquid, which will be reabsorbed into the cooked flesh. Or, if the cooking takes a very long time, the liquid will simply evaporate and blacken.
  5. Once you have a cooked squash, you can immediately feed a crowd with it. Season it with salt and pepper, add butter, or drizzle olive oil atop it. But what’s more likely is that you can scoop out the flesh and use it over time in many ways. You needn’t feel rushed to use it all up within a week, as it freezes well. Portion it into containers that you feel will make sense for you, make a note of what it is, and put it in the freezer.
Deborah’s squash cake.

Then, when you’re ready, use it any of the following ways:

  • Make any number of squash soups.
  • Feature the cooked squash in a risotto.
  • Enjoy roughly mashed winter squash with the aforementioned butter, olive oil, or mascarpone, fried sage leaves, toasted pecans, harissa, and so forth. (See Winter Squash Purée).
  • Add cooked winter squash to muffins or breads. (I used it in the Winter Squash Cake with Dates, adapted from a recipe in Seasonal Fruit Desserts, where it provided both its sweet flavor and moistness.)
  • Fry it in clarified butter with blue cheese scattered over the top, or fresh mozzarella, or Parmesan. The squash will caramelize on the bottom. Add pepper.
  • Stuff a ravioli.
  • Turn it into a sweet or savory custard or gratin.

And once you’ve consigned several bags of cooked winter squash to the freezer, don’t let them linger until they’re part of your freezer landscape. You’ll want to use it before the next harvest comes around again, or before something more enticing, like asparagus and peas, appears to take the place of squash altogether.

Winter squash is for winter. So use it now, through March at the latest — while it’s most appealing.

Deborah Madison is the author of numerous award-winning cookbooks, including Local Flavors. She lives in New Mexico.

There are 10 comments on this item
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1. by ruth_117 on Jan 12, 2011 at 11:29 AM PST

Oh, it is so true that many of the things we find interesting and exciting to look at eventually become just “part of the background”. My mother had jars of lentils, pasta and beans on her counter at home for years and never used them! I always wondered why she left them for so long when those were things we ate everyday!

2. by jdixon on Jan 13, 2011 at 12:19 PM PST

I’ve decided the best use of winter squash is what I call fritters. Here’s a recipe from my site:


I recently tweaked this approach a bit and made pancakes with the cooked squash, too:

Squash Corncakes with Bacon
In one bowl, combine the dry ingredients: 1 cup good cornmeal (Ayers Creek, Anson Mills, or similar whole grain ground corn), 1/2 cup whole wheat flour, 1 teaspoon each baking soda and salt. Add about a half cup of chopped, cooked bacon.

Separate two eggs. To the yolks, add a cup of cooked winter squash, and a cup of milk (or buttermilk or yogurt or a mix). Blend well, then combine with the dry ingredients. Add more milk if the batter is too thick to pour. Beat the whites to soft peaks and fold in. Cook on a griddle, serve with maple syrup (and maybe a dollop of creme fraiche).

3. by Deborah Madison on Jan 13, 2011 at 1:19 PM PST

J - those fritters sound good! Might make them for dinner tonight as I have accumulated quite a bit of cooked squash as of late.

Ruth - my in laws had entire storage rooms filled with foods they had canned! Out of sight, out of mind, or maybe it was just excess, the results of a too big garden.

4. by oregon foodie on Jan 13, 2011 at 5:06 PM PST

I cut open my first Musquee de Provence, which I grew in my garden last summer. It was the smallest of the 3 (we had a crummy summer, weather-wise) yet yielded 14 lbs of pumpkin cubes! I roasted 2 lbs to top a lovely risotto and then used another 2 lbs in a soup with ceci (purchased from Jim Dixon who commented above)and cavolo nero (which I’m still cutting from my garden). I gave 2 lbs to my sister and the rest went into the freezer in zip top bags. And I still have 2 more, larger, Musquees in the garage! Interestingly, when I hit our farmer’s market on Sunday, there was a vendor with Musquee and Sibley’s he was selling by the piece.

5. by Deborah Madison on Jan 14, 2011 at 10:08 AM PST

What a great addition to the article your comments on your Musquee de Provence make! Fourteen pounds of cubes? and that was from your smallest squash? That’s impressive. And what a good idea to freeze it in cubes —it gives you more possibilities. I imagine the combination of the squash with ceci and cavalo nero could be very nice in a ragout, since you mentioned them. I know you have more than enough squash, but I hope you’ll try the Sibley’s. Let me what you think about it.

6. by debra daniels-zeller on Jan 18, 2011 at 8:35 AM PST

All these interesting ideas about what to do with squash--I love it, thanks for sharing. And thanks also for the tips on cutting through the tough skins!

7. by oregon foodie on Feb 21, 2011 at 11:42 AM PST

Had to let you know, Deborah, that I’ve just ordered seeds from Seed Savers for Sibleys in addition to my usual Musquee de Provence. Can’t wait to see how they work out for me (I’m praying for a warm summer!). I have a Musquee on my kitchen counter right now. I’m going to cut it up and make all sorts of yummy wintery dishes since we’re expecting a bout of unusually cold weather here in Portland.

8. by leslie land on Dec 1, 2011 at 6:44 AM PST

Such a glorious vegetable! I mean, how many delicious things are there that can not only be used for decor but also benefit from storage at (cool) room temperature? Not many. And then so obliging in the easy-to-use leftovers department. Every one of these recipes an obvious winner. My current favorite is what I guess you’d call a new heirloom - open pollinated, but still in the development stage. It’s called Queen of Smyrna and I’m stone in love. Thanks for the chance to sing its praises again: http://leslieland.com/2010/12/baked-winter-squash-with-jalapenos-and-piave-v-n-i

9. by Sally Cornaga on Feb 4, 2013 at 12:55 PM PST

I buy kabocha because I think they are the most flavorful of the winter squash, and I can’t say they linger too long uneaten! On the other hand, I would be tempted to keep some of these beauties (like musquee de provence) gracing my table indefinitely, perhaps waiting for Cinderella and her mouse coachmen.

10. by Deborah Madison on Feb 4, 2013 at 1:20 PM PST

Sally - I just this moment cut up my favorite Marina di Chioggia squash (beautiful and expensive) because I realized it was starting to give up its life as a firm and exquisite edible. I hope I didn’t wait too long - it’s roasting right now.
But I know what you mean. Exactly. Especially with Musquee de Provence and Rouge viv d’Etampes. I guess there’s more than one way to appreciate a squash.

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Local Flavors

Deborah Madison, the celebrated cookbook author and local-food advocate, feeds us with her occasional reflections. Her latest book is Vegetable Literacy.

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