Expectations squashed

The report of a winter-squash tasting

November 25, 2012

I know. It’s winter squash again, and here I just wrote about it (and sage) in September.” And yes, indeed, I’ve written about it a few times in the past.

But I’m a squash fan, and I can’t resist sharing an experience with you: Earlier this month, I was in North Carolina, where I worked with the chef at Davidson College to prepare my recipes for some 700 people (!) and conduct a squash tasting for considerably fewer.

As always, it was an informative exercise, and this was a good time of year to do it, as we’ll all be eating squash for the next few months. Besides, you might want to arrange a tasting with your friends.

I love doing squash tastings because there are invariably surprises, and this time was no exception. The lineup, for starters, had me a bit puzzled. First there was Carnival, for which I could find no information anywhere and therefore had no idea what kind of creature this festive-looking squash was. Candy Roaster, the heirloom from the Carolinas and Georgia, was one I had confidence in, having been told it was a wonderful squash by North Carolinians last spring.

Sweet Dumplings

Another went by the general name Calabaza, which pretty much means “squash” and therefore tells you nothing. This was a big turban squash, the kind we usually regard as decorative rather than edible, so my expectations were low. The Buttercup was missing its little belly button, so I wasn’t entirely sure if it really was one or not. And the Kabocha also wasn’t much like the ones I’m used to seeing.

No one could even find a Delicata to bring in, a squash I thought was utterly common. The Sweet Dumpling, usually a petite little squash perfect for one serving, was as big as the Carnival and the Acorn — that is, well over a pound. We also had the common Butternut.

So here was an array of vegetables that should have been utterly familiar but were, each in their own way, questionable, unfamiliar, or simply just not quite like the ones I was used to seeing. It’s good to know we’re not absolutely uniform across the culinary boards, after all.

A squash tasting involves steaming or roasting a variety of squash, then tasting them without any adornment whatsoever. No salt. No pepper. No fried sage leaves. No butter.

I like to have the uncooked ones on hand as well as the cooked, so that people can see what they look like whole, then when cooked and cut into pieces. The difference in color, texture, and thickness of flesh is always surprising to participants, as are the differences among the same squash, cooked.

In this tasting, I paired squashes in each round partly to expedite the event, but also because it’s always more memorable when you take one bite followed by another of a different kind. Here’s some of what we learned:

  • The mysterious Carnival, which resembled an Acorn, was not only quite festive in appearance, but also delicious, with creamy-textured, bright-orange flesh that was moist and sweet.
  • Likewise, the Calabaza turban squash, which I thought would be watery and nondescript, was a favorite, again for its sweetness, texture, and good flavor.
  • The Butternut, not surprisingly, surpassed the Acorn in sweetness, depth of flavor, and smoothness of flesh. (It was not familiar to some of the tasters.)
  • The Candy Roaster was pale, watery, stringy, and not very tasty. (But since this is an heirloom, I still have high hopes for it. When I tasted Candy Roasters in May, I found them much better — denser, sweeter, of deeper hue. Why was it so much different? Was it the season? Where it was grown? When it was picked?)
  • The Buttercup was dense and dry-fleshed, not quite as sweet as the Kabocha, which we paired it with.

While the group favored sweetness on the whole, the more somber chestnut flavor of the Buttercup had a certain promise for savory dishes, as did its drier flesh. (Originally, long before we could buy everything all the time everywhere, the Buttercup was bred to resemble a sweet potato for cooks in North Dakota.)

Likes and dislikes were expressed, but the best part about a tasting like this is that it makes such an impression. Participants had never tried one or another (or most) of the squashes. They admitted they had been hesitant to do so before, but now they would. I also came face to face with my own prejudices when varieties with low expectations turned out to be exceptional, and vice versa.

One woman sent me a note after the class saying, ”I never had tasted so many different kinds side by side, so I really wasn’t aware of the differences in flavor and texture. Now I won’t look askance at those weird-looking squashes at the farmer’s market — I’ll summon up my courage and try a new variety!”

And there you are. I like to think that even a small event like this will result in more adventurous shoppers and eaters who will be the very ones who eventually build support for any truly great but seldom seen and not well-known squashes.

After all, if you buy a dud, what have you lost? A few dollars. But you’ve gained an experience.

You can do a squash tasting at home. Better, you can do it with friends, which make it all a bit easier. And while you might forget what you read, you probably won’t forget what you taste.

There are 6 comments on this item
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1. by anonymous on Nov 28, 2012 at 6:09 PM PST

http://www.wholeheartedfoods.com/pumpkinseed-oil-shop.htm sells oils from specific squashes. They’re amazingly different.

2. by Deborah Madison on Nov 29, 2012 at 7:38 AM PST

Thanks so much for that tip. Interesting, but I guess it shouldn’t be so
surprising. As the flesh differs, so do the seeds? It appears so!

3. by simona on Dec 24, 2012 at 7:59 AM PST

Every year I find new squash varieties to try and love it! This year I bought a mini version of butternut and a brown version of kabocha. I haven’t cooked them yet, because I am still in the hoarding phase. I am also surprised by the lack of delicata squash: it’s a favorite of mine and also the quickest one to roast. A question for you, Deborah. I have always roasted squashes cut side down, but this year I have seen recipes which instruct to do it cut side up. I tried doing that with an acorn squash and was not quite happy with the way it cooked. Do you have any insight/experience to share on this topic?

4. by Deborah Madison on Dec 26, 2012 at 9:19 AM PST

Ciao Simona -
I know what you mean about being in the hoarding phase - me too, with a huge Marina di Chioggia. It’s so gorgeous.
About the roasting, I always roast cut squash cut-side down. I feel it keeps the moisture within, whereas exposing the surface to the oven heat would dry it out. Even when it’s brushed with oil first. I’m in favor of the cut-side down approach myself when roasting a half squash or a very large piece.

5. by simona on Dec 30, 2012 at 5:59 PM PST

Thank you, Deborah, for your answer: your words confirm my experience. I have an acorn squash in the oven right now and it is cut side down. Happy New Year!

6. by Deborah Madison on Dec 31, 2012 at 7:36 AM PST

Maybe I’ll add a squash souffle to my menu of black-eyed peas and greens tonight. Happy New Year to you and all, Simona!

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