Fall is the time for ripening winter squash. Most people are familiar with acorn squash, pumpkins, and maybe delicata or hubbard varieties, but there are dozens of squash varieties available to grow.
They all have one thing in common–most have a very hard shell. The bigger the squash, the tougher the shell. As a result many cooks limit their culinary squash choices.
Delicata squash have a hard shell, but it’s thin enough to peel with a vegetable peeler. Acorn squash shells are thicker, but they are small enough that a good whack with a sharp chef’s knife will usually do the trick. Larger squash, such as hubbard, are sometimes available in grocery stores already chopped into managable pieces.
If you want a real adventure, though, as well as a creative challenge, start with a large squash and try to figure out how to get to the delicious, creamy flesh inside.
I recently faced this dilemma when a friend gave me a large, beautiful blue Sweet Meat squash. It was about 18 to 20 inches across. I knew the flavor reward would be great if I could manage to get to the bright orange vegetable inside.
There are several squash-cracking techniques I’ve seen used before:
1. Some people start with a large, heavy knife, preferably a little thicker than most, and they use a hammer to pound the knife into the sides of the squash. Unless it’s a particularly tough knife blade, it’s a good way to break your knife. Or get your knife stuck.
2. Sometimes a squash can be microwaved for a few minutes to soften the shell. That’s not possible with a very large squash, though. It won’t fit in the microwave oven.
3. Some use an axe. This takes some practice and skill to end up with chunks about the same size for cooking. A good knowledge of axe safety is also advisable.
4. Others don’t fool around. They throw finesse to the wind, and throw the squash out an upper story window onto a concrete or stone surface below, where it shatters into pieces. Not elegant, but effective!
Here’s the technique I prefer. I use a Chinese chef knife, which is like a small cleaver (see photo). It’s heavy and moderately thick. I start near the top stem and cut in about an inch deep (or as deep as I can safely cut by hand). Then I move the knife to the end of that first cut, and make another cut to lengthen the first. Gradually working around the squash, it eventually falls in half.
Once the squash is halved, I use a spoon to remove the seeds and stringy center. This time I saved the seeds for roasting (see the recipe) and discarded the stringy pulp. I’ve never heard of a good use for the pulp, except maybe for feeding chickens or pigs.
After I finished roasting the seeds, I turned up the oven to 350 degrees F. I roasted the two squash halves, cut sides down on a parchment covered baking sheet, for nearly an hour until the insides were soft and a bit could be easily scooped out with a fork.
At last the hard work was over. There were probably about 10 cups of sweet cooked squash that I scraped out of the two half shells. I put it in the refrigerator and sat down to think about how to I would use it.
First on my list was to add a little butter and honey, reheat some of the squash in the microwave, and serve it like mashed potatoes with dinner. It lived up to its name “Sweet Meat” and tasted hearty and sugary.
After that, part of it is destined to be made into a creamy and luscious fall soup. Some sautéed onions and garlic, a few fresh savory herbs, some homemade chicken stock and some heavy cream to finish will make a nice warm lunch after a cool afternoon stacking firewood outdoors.
I haven’t decided yet how the last squash will be used. I could add some eggs and onion, and some crispy local bacon and grated cheese on the top and bake the squash as a casserole.
Or I could yield to my sweet tooth and made a spicy squash pie. Milk, butter, eggs, honey, and some fresh local ginger from Terra Verde, all poured into my mother’s pie crust recipe, and heaven will be close at hand!
There are lots of other possibilities, too, but these are some of my favorites. They’re all easily made with locally grown ingredients.
So be brave! Don’t be daunted by the tough hide on those gorgeous winter squash that help make the fall season something to look forward to here in Whatcom County. Boldly hack your way in and win the tasty vegetable prize at the center. You’ll be glad you did!