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Satisfying Squash

Friday, June 1, 2001

Lemon yellow, forest green, sunset orange, vintage - lace ivory, multicolor stripe. Oblong, round, straight, hooked, nubby, ridged smooth. Tiny, medium, gargantuan. Sweet, nutty, mild, rich. With its multitude of color, shape, and taste incarnations, the squash is one of the most versatile, palate-pleasing vegetables available.

No wonder it’s a favorite among chefs, regardless of their style of cooking.

Edible Gourds

The squash has been around for 2,000 years, and through native to the Western Hemisphere, it is successfully cultivated across the globe. All squashes are the fruits of plants in the Gourd Family, and compromise the genus Cucurbita. They grow on bushy or viney plants about 8 to 14 inches off the ground and vary widely in size, shape, split into two main groups: summer and winter.

Summer, or soft, squash have thin, edible skins, soft seeds, a mild flavor, and tender, watery flesh that doesn’t require long cooking. Despite name, most summer squash are generally available year-round, especially zucchini, pattypan, and crookneck. According to Dr. Henry B. Wainer, president of Sid Wainer & Son Specialty Produce and Specialty Foods in New Bedford, Massachusetts, summer squash should have tight, smooth skin, a firm body, and a milky white stem; discoloration indicated an overly mature vegetable. Small to medium summer squashes are best, as the seeds in the larger ones are hard to digest. For the blossoms, which come from almost all varieties of squash, but especially zucchini, Wainer explains, “Your best bet is to harvest them just as they’re opening or closing; open ones can be damaged with handling.”

Winter, or hard, squash are characterized by hard, thick skins and seeds and firmer flesh, which requires longer cooking. Most grow year-round but are best from early fall through winter. Common varieties include acorn, butternut, Hubbard, spaghetti, and turban. When choosing winter squash, Wainer says, “Look for one that’s firm and well shaped, so it’s easy to peel and cut without creating a lot of waste.”

Rick Tombari, owner of Cooks Company, a 20-year-old produce distributor in San Francisco that sells several varieties of squash and blossoms, notes that seasonally based restaurants tend to purchase the most squash. “When it’s in season, it’s plentiful and cheap,” he points out, adding that in June, when California becomes too hot for growing asparagus chefs turn to the many varieties of squash.

 As a rule, hard squashes can be kept for several months in a cool, dry place (wine cellars are ideal), while soft squashes need to be refrigerated at 35 degrees to 37 degrees Fahrenheit and may be kept from one to sex days, depending on freshness. They should never be frozen, since thawing promotes mold growth or a slimy texture. Wainer cautions, “But it as you want to use it: you don’t want to store it for long, as I loses flavor and nutrition.” Blossoms are the most delicate of all. They should be used immediately for salads and stuffed preparations and refrigerated for no longer that a day if they’ll be sautéed or fried.

Delicious and Decorative

Of squash, David Lawson, chef and owner of Aubergine in Hillsdale, New York, says, “It’s a touchstone, a grounding vegetable. It’s also a healthy, and a very friendly food. I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t like it.” Plus, he adds, the squash brings rich flavor and a dash of color to the plate, especially in the gray days of late fall and winter.

 Lawson grows butternut and crookneck in his organic garden and buts other favorites in large quantities (up to a bushel at a time). For a good local product, he’s willing to pay up to $0.90 a pound. He insists, “Local farmers tend to rotate their crops more frequently, so (the squashes) have real flavor and vigor.” He calls butternut the “workhouse” squash because of its versatility and popularity but picks as his favorite delicata and Hubbard. He says of the latter, “It’s a huge monster of a squash, but nothing beats its richness of flavor. I also use it as a decoration in the restaurant.

 Across the country at The Cosmopolitan in the Hotel Columbia in Columbia, Colorado, Chef and Owner Chad Scothorn admits, “I’m not a fan of summer squashes - they’re too soft.” Instead he relies on butternut, red kuri, pumpkin, and spaghetti and says, “The great part about squash is that they really can be used in everything from appetizers to entrees to desserts.” He orders 30-pound cases ($20) at a time. When it comes to blossoms, he comments, “I think they’re more novel that they are tasty. When you fry anything that delicate, the flavor is lost.”

Julian Medina, a Mexican native and the chef at Zocalo in New York City, argues, “The blossom is something I always like to use because of the flavor, texture, and bright color. It’s light and fresh.” Medina gets three 36-count flats raw because they shrink up to 80 percent when cooked. He also purchases a 35-pound case of butternut ($28) and a 20-pound case of chayote ($25), a common Mexican variety, and weekly. Of butternut, he shares, “It has a very clear and authentic flavor,” whereas the watery chayote is “very light, healthy, and refreshing, with a flavor similar to pear.”

When it comes to squash, Chef Cindy Pawlcyn, who owns Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen in St. Helena, California, can’t say enough. “I love the way they cook up. They’re dense, sweet, rich, and not too watery. And they’re beautiful.” In the restaurants two-acre garden, Pawlcyn grows several varieties, including rue de temp, butternut, red kuri, and delicata. Since the squashes are used in a multitude of preparations, especially soups, gratins, and fritters, the restaurant goes through about 120 pounds of squash and baby squash per week in the winter. Pawlcyn counts pumpkin, acorn, red kuri, crookneck, pattypan, and delicata among her favorites and notes. “I plant extra zucchini just so I can use the blossoms.”

In Tombari’s opinion, several squashes have yet to catch on with mainstream. “I really like kabocha. It’s one of those overlooked squashes that are great for filling ravioli.” Wainer also singles out red kuri and sweet dumpling; which he likes to use stuffed with rice and sausage or cheeses or baked with brown sugar and butter. He says, “Many chefs are branching out and really experimenting with these other varieties.”

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