Big, special squashes

Mad for winter squash

By
October 20, 2010

Fall brings us field and garden treasures, among them apples (more about those soon!) and winter squash. I’m mad for winter squashes, and if I could grow only one type of food in my garden, this would be it. There are many beautiful vegetables, but to me none are more handsome, amusing, and surprising than those tough-skinned cucurbits.

Their sculpted shapes are gorgeous and varied. They can be bizarrely covered with growths that look like peanuts. They glow orange when glowing is needed, or remain as subdued as a gunmetal-gray sky. And then, of course, there’s what’s inside and all the things we can do with this firm, yellow flesh.

If you haven’t, do take a look at Amy Goldman’s book, The Compleat Squash, A Passionate Grower’s Guide to Pumpkins, Squashes, and Gourds. You’ll find it hard not to get hooked.

To her, no vegetable is more handsome than a tough-skinned winter squash.

I also have a special admiration for those who are passionate growers of pumpkins and squashes, because if you’re selling squashes at a farmers’ market, they can be a lot of bother. They’re heavy, for starters, and they all have to be lifted into a truck, driven to market, and then lifted out for display. And then the whole process has to be repeated for those that didn’t sell. This in itself demands extra dedication.

Next are the customers to consider. You may be enticed by a beautiful large Musquée de Provence, but even at the modest price of $2.50 a pound, a single specimen could cost $40 or more. Even if you spring for it, intending to enjoy its form for a time before actually cooking it, there’s the challenge of carrying such a heavy vegetable to your car along with all your other purchases.

The Sibley is an heirloom variety.

One way this problem is dealt with in European markets (and sometimes here, too) is to sell the squash by the wedge, which is much more manageable. Or, as I saw last week at the Boulder farmers’ market in Colorado, one farmer cheerfully encouraging her customers to “Cook the whole thing! Cook it all, eat what you want, and freeze the rest!”

This is a great idea, but how would you cook a very large squash? You cut it in half (if you can!), scrape out the seeds, brush the flesh with oil, and roast it in a moderate oven (350 to 375 degrees) until it’s very tender. Then you just scoop out the flesh.

If you absolutely can’t cut it up, bake it whole. Once it begins to soften, you can pull it out and halve it, or just let it continue cooking until softened, then halve it and scoop out the seeds. Once it’s soft, you might take the precaution of poking a few holes in it to forestall possible explosions in the oven.

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Unusual winter squash have long been the province of the farmers’ market and its experimental growers. This year alone I’ve seen the blue-skinned Marina di Chioggia; a long torpedo-shaped blue-gray Sibley; a Winter Luxury Pie Pumpkin, with its delicate lacelike covering; a Hopi squash; and the Musquée de Provence and Rouge Vif D’Etampes, which are both Cinderella-coach-like pumpkins — that is, squat and convoluted. There was also a Long Island Cheese pumpkin, similarly convoluted but not as extreme, and the bizarre wart-covered Galeux d’Eysines.

These all happen to be heirloom varieties, each with its own virtue and all worth buying, eating, and in that way, preserving. Seeing such diversity, I felt grateful that there are passionate, intrepid souls dedicated to growing these handsome creatures, hauling them to market, and giving them their names.

Deborah’s squash-laden table.

Upon my return from Colorado, I was surprised to see, in Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, bins of what were called, rather indiscriminately, Halloween pumpkins. Among them were Musquée de Provence and Rouge Vif D’Etampes and a few other quite unusual varieties. They were cheap ($5.99 each) but not given their true names, so buyers didn’t know the real identities of the treasures they were carting home.

On the one hand, it’s great that such unusual varieties are becoming mainstream, but on the other, it’s a shame that people probably don’t know that they have history (and food) in their hands, and that these treasures are just jumbled up with who knows what kind of pumpkin.

I hope that your farmers’ market has a great variety of winter squash and pumpkins, because we have months ahead of us to explore their virtues. For the moment, I’ve settled for baking a good old butternut squash from the farmers’ market, mashing the flesh, then cooking it in a little ghee, slices of mozzarella set over the top to melt, lots of pepper, and a garnish of sage leaves fried in olive oil. Absolutely delicious!

Why am I not cooking one of the other varieties? Because I have to admire them first for at least a few weeks, if not longer, before removing them from their place of honor on my dining-room table. For the moment, they’re just too beautiful to eat.

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

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1. by MG on Oct 20, 2010 at 5:24 PM PDT

Thank you for sharing that the Trader Joe’s “Halloween Pumpkins” are edible! Their signs really don’t make that clear, which is disappointing.

2. by Deborah Madison on Oct 21, 2010 at 8:53 AM PDT

MG - I don’t know about the pumpkin “pumpkins” - that is the usual Halloween jack-o-lantern types. I suspect they don’t make very good eating, but the grey and orange convoluted varieties can be eaten. In fact, they can be hollowed out, filled with bread, cream or milk, sage and Gruyere cheese and baked. Yum!

3. by debra daniels-zeller on Oct 25, 2010 at 9:23 AM PDT

I’ve found that if I want a certain squash that’s too big for me and I ask other people in line if anyone wants to split it, the farmer usually has a knife big and sharp enough to cut it and will cut it for us. Just a thought for people who may find the big varieties too intimidating and have never asked if the farmer is willing to cut it.

4. by simona on Oct 25, 2010 at 12:00 PM PDT

I had never seen a Sibley squash before the photo in your article and then yesterday I saw one at our farmers’ market. It is the first time the farmer grows it, and I may have been the first person to get one. When it comes to winter squashes, I am a hoarder. I cannot confess how many I already have, but I can say that, besides the Sibley, I got an Iranian squash of a lovely pink color that I cannot bring myself to cook quite yet.

5. by MG on Oct 27, 2010 at 3:04 PM PDT

I actually ran to TJ’s just after I typed my comment and picked up a “Fairy Tale Pumpkin.” I got a large squat one that is sort of a dusky grey-orange color and appears to be made of several wedges that came from different sized pumpkins (as they are mostly different sizes). It doesn’t look like any of the ones for which you’ve provided photo links, but some of the others did look similar so I’d like to believe it’s edible. Can’t wait to try it!

6. by MG on Oct 27, 2010 at 3:11 PM PDT

Oops, I meant to say I ran to TJ’s just after I read your comment! Thanks for the inspiration!

7. by MG on Oct 28, 2010 at 3:59 AM PDT

Last one...I figured out that I bought a Musquée de Provence pumpkin/squash that you linked to above. It is also marketed as a Fairytale pumpkin, although most of the pumpkins labeled as such at TJ’s were actually other varieties of heirloom pumpkins.

8. by oregon foodie on Nov 16, 2010 at 8:02 AM PST

I’m just back from a two week trip to italy. My hostess’s only request was canned pumpkin -- she has no car and lives too far from market to lug home a pumpkin. I took the requested cans but also brought seeds to grow her own Musquee de Provence (sshh! don’t tell) and the GORGEOUS book “The Compleat Squash.” Fortunately I also bought a copy or myself. They were a big hit so thanks for the heads up on the book. I grew my own Musquee de Provence this summer, despite a wretched growing season here in Portland, and look forward to even better sucess with better weather next year. I really love the book and will have fun in the winter months exploring various squash types and planning my garden. Thanks for sharing your squash love and great recipes!

9. by Deborah Madison on Nov 16, 2010 at 8:21 AM PST

Oregon Foodie — What a great story! And aren’t you the hero (or heroine). There’s a special Italian heirloom in The Compleat Squash, such as Marina di Chioggia, a gorgeous blue-green squash that’s covered with (as Amy Goldman says) warts and boils.(See page 59.) You might bring seeds for this beauty next time you go to Italy (or look for them there.) I’ve had one on my table now for a few weeks—I can’t bare to eat it, but I’m promised that it will be good.

10. by oregon foodie on Nov 16, 2010 at 8:30 PM PST

Thanks for the tip, Deborah! I see Seed Savers Exchange has seeds for Marina di Chioggia (and probably many of the other lovely heirloom varieties). I see an ever-expanding garden in my future . . . .

11. by egirlrocks on Nov 19, 2010 at 7:37 PM PST

Excellent article, Deborah! Up to now I’ve only been good with summer squashes, baking pumpkins and the occasional spaghetti squash. I’m excited to venture into new squash territory. Thank you!

12. by Deborah Madison on Dec 5, 2010 at 3:29 PM PST

You’re in for many delicious adventures!

13. by Sheila Payne on Jan 13, 2011 at 2:37 PM PST

Hi Deborah, this is your happy farmer from the Boulder Farmer’s market. I am currently being a snow bird in Central Texas. I lugged a Sibley down here and just now cooked it up. I brought a simple puree of the roasted squash (a touch of butter and a pinch of salt) to a potluck with several Austin area market farmers. There were many great dishes on the table. The squash got several compliments, but the best was from a 10 year old girl who said it was her favorite dish there. I gave her a big hug. Thanks for encouraging the exploration of winter squash so that more can know and appreciate it’s simple pleasure (and so that I don’t have to haul very many of them back from market every Saturday ;-)

14. by Deborah Madison on Jan 13, 2011 at 3:29 PM PST

Sheila! Wonderful to hear from you! I always think farmers who grow large cucurbits are very passionate people because squash aren’t the easiest items to move around. But they are the fabulous plants. I loved my Sibleys! In fact, I just defrosted the last of it (taking your advice to freeze what we couldn’t eat) to make something with. Don’t know what yet. Enjoy your warm spell in Texas and see you sometime next year in Boulder.

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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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