November 16, 2012

A Guide to Winter Squash

No Thanksgiving is complete without winter squash. One of the foods truly native to America, the squash vine’s roots run deep in Mexico, where it has traditionally been grown alongside corn and beans, making up a trio known as the Three Sisters. Heirloom squash varieties have been cultivated all over the world, from Japan to Italy to Australia.

A member of the Cucurbitaceae family, the squash is related to melons, cucumbers, and gourds. Harvested in the fall, winter squash, which include pumpkin varieties, are distinguished from zucchini and other summer squash by their dry, hard skin and long shelf life that extends through the winter. They must be cured for 10 or more days after harvest, at which point their skins harden and their starches convert to sugars. When properly stored in a cool and dry place, some squash varieties will keep for up to six months.

With the their diverse shapes, sizes, colors, and flavors, heirloom winter squashes are grown for their remarkable appearances as well as their distinct flavors. For the last seven years, Marty Jacobson and Janet Brown of Allstar Organics have built a reputation as the “squash people” at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. The farm currently grows upwards of 30 varieties of squash, including a number of the rarities available through Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

“We try to cultivate high sugar content and good texture,” says Marty. Planted in the spring, winter squash typically take three to four months to mature, during which they require much tender love and care. “They’re sensitive things,” he explains. “If you get an early season freeze, you could kill or set them back. We use a lot of compost, feed them an organic feed, mulch them, and grow a cover crop.”

Marty says that he doesn’t have a favorite variety, but for eating, he often chooses the petite Carnival or the classic Butternut, of which he grows four varieties, including Long of Naples, a green Italian heirloom. As far as looks go, he’s especially fond of the Triamble, with its smooth blue-green flesh and distinctive shamrock shape. “But virtually all the squash we grow are cookable and really good,” he’s quick to note.

Allstar Organics can be found at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturday. They will also be making an appearance at our special pre-Thanksgiving market on Wednesday, November 21.

Here are some of the common squash (and a few exotic favorites) you’ll find at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Visit the CUESA website for a listing of which farms grow which varieties, as well as some delicious recipes.

Acorn: These small, ridged squash are popular and versatile, ideal for just about any squash preparation. With hard skin and sweet orange flesh, Acorns can be found in a variety of colors, from deep green to gold or white. The small, colorfully striped Carnival squash, a hybrid of the Acorn and the Sweet Dumpling, is perfect for stuffing.

Buttercup: A popular variety of Turban squash (see below), the Buttercup is squat and pumpkin-shaped with faintly streaked, dark green skin. The flesh is sweet-potato-like and somewhat dry.

Butternut: The pear-shaped Butternut has dense, sweet, and nutty flesh and only a few seeds, making it a popular cooking squash to roast, mash, or purée in soups. To remove its hard exterior, first cut it in half and roast it, then remove the skin with a vegetable peeler. Waltham is the classic cream-colored variety.

Delicata: The small, oblong Delicata is a single-serving squash. Just cut in half, scoop out the seeds, and roast with a bit olive oil, salt, and pepper, or bake stuffed with the savory filling of your choice. No need to peel; the thin, green-and-gold-striped skin is edible, too. Sweet and creamy, it has earned itself the nickname “sweet potato squash.”

Galeux d’Eysines: Commonly known as the “peanut pumpkin,” this striking French heirloom has a salmon-colored skin covered in barnacle-like knobs. The growths are produced through a process known as “corking,” whereby the sugars break through the skin and exude to form peanut-shell-like scabs, a sign of the squash’s sweetness.

Hubbard: With blue-gray, bumpy skin and a teardrop shape, this heavyweight of the squash family has a pumpkin-like flavor. The Hubbard’s family-size heft makes it a favorite for roasting, and thus a great turkey substitute at a vegetarian Thanksgiving.

Kabocha: Similar to the Buttercup, this Japanese variety (kabocha is the generic term for squash in Japanese) has dense flesh and a hard skin, which softens when cooked. The deep yellow flesh is a bit flaky but very sweet. Bake it or roast with lots of butter or oil.

Marina di Chioggia: This heirloom hails from the coast of Italy, from the same village as the candy-striped Chioggia beet. Pumpkin-shaped, with a warty, dark blue-green exterior, the Marina di Chioggia has a decorative appearance, but its sweet flesh is especially good for ravioli and gnocchi filling.

Pumpkin: Pumpkins generally fall into two categories: those for carving and those for eating. Field pumpkins sold for Halloween jack-o’-lanterns usually lack flavor, while Sugar Pie pumpkins hold true to their name. Squat and richly hued French heirlooms like the Cinderella pumpkin (Rouge Vif d’Etampes) and Musquee de Provence are beautiful to display, but they’re also sweet and delicious roasted.

Red Kuri: Resembling a small Hubbard with deep red-orange skin, the Red Kuri is a Japanese squash with a chestnut-like flavor. It’s a versatile fruit, and its bowl-like seed cavity works well for stuffing.

Spaghetti: Light yellow, large, and oblong, the Spaghetti squash is another classic variety. When cooked, the light, stringy flesh gives way to strands that make for a delicious gluten- and carb-free pasta substitute. Just scrape the flesh with a fork.

Turban: Also known as Turk’s Cap, this bulbous and squat cucurbit makes a colorful addition to any fall centerpiece. Not to be mistaken for a decorative gourd, Turbans are edible, with a sweet, if mild, flavor. A Turban’s flesh is great roasted and made into a soup, and its rind can be used for a tureen.

Don’t miss CUESA’s Squash Celebration tomorrow. Visit the CUESA Kitchen (under the arches in front of the Ferry Building, north of the clock tower) from 10 am to 1 pm for squash tastings, cooking demos, recipes, and more.

About CUESA

CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and its educational programs. Learn More »