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IN THE KITCHEN : Squashing a Bland Reputation

October 26, 1995|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES DEPUTY FOOD EDITOR

When you get right down to it, winter squash is a tough sell. There's the name, to start with. "Squash" calls up images of bland baby food. Attaching "winter" before it only makes things worse. It's like an apology: This is what we have to use until summer comes and we can get to the good bland baby food.

Then there's the matter of appearance. Most winter squashes look more like instruments of self-defense than like something to eat. Let's face it, if you had to pick one fruit or vegetable to carry down a dark back alley, it would be a winter squash. (OK, maybe a durian, but that's another story.)

All of this is unfortunate, because winter squash is not only delicious, it's also extremely easy to cook.

First, settle on the varieties you favor. I tend to like the creamier, more richly flavored squash, rather than the fibrous, more vegetal-tasting varieties. My recommendations are butternut, kabocha and carnival. You should make up your own mind.

For most dishes, you'll want to start with squash pulp. There are two ways to get this. First, you can prick the skin of the squash all over with a sharp carving fork and then bake it at 400 degrees until it is soft.

I prefer cutting the squash in half, placing it cut-side down on a jelly roll pan or in a roasting pan and then adding a quarter-inch or so of water before baking. I find squash cooks more quickly and more evenly this way, though the flavor may be a tad less concentrated.

Once the squash is cooked through--about 30 to 40 minutes using my technique, about 50 to 60 using the whole squash, depending on its size--simply spoon the pulp away from the skin. Some squashes (notably butternut) have thinner skins than others and some squashes (acorn, et al.) have deep ribs that make getting all the pulp a little complicated.

The solution is pretty simple: Don't get too greedy. It's better to leave a little squash behind than to end up with tough bits of skin in the pulp.

Once you've pulped your squash (doesn't that sound appetizing?), you can make the dish as basic or as complicated as you like. Whip the pulp with a little butter (or a lot; it's up to you) and you've got a side dish that is perfectly wonderful just as it is. You can also flavor the puree in a number of ways--some diced apple, some snipped dried apricot or a more ornate reduction of balsamic vinegar and shallots, as in the recipe here.

You can also make the pulp as coarse or as fine as you want it. Simply whipping the butter into the pulp with a wooden spoon results in a somewhat chunky texture. If you want something finer, use the food processor. Squash won't get gluey the way mashed potatoes will because it's not as high in starch.

Although purees are the most obvious way to use squash pulp, don't stop there. Add liquid to the puree and you've got a nice cream soup--a bisque made without fat. Forget the liquid and add a binder and you've got a filling for ravioli or tortellini.

In any of these preparations, you can twist the taste any way you want. Winter squash have an earthy, sweet taste that adapts to many flavorings.

This soup, for example, may not be authentically Moroccan, but it is delicious. It was inspired by the fact that so many of the components of a basic Moroccan spice blend are also the spices we associate with American pumpkin pie--and, since a good winter squash is what pumpkins wish they tasted like, it seems a natural marriage. Although we tend to think of cinnamon, cloves and cardamom as sweet spices, when they're combined with cumin and chile, they give this soup a complex edge.

Many of these same spices are used in Italy in the almost medieval-tasting squash ravioli made in the area around Parma. But you can also go a different direction, emphasizing the earthiness of the squash by combining it with prosciutto and Parmesan and dressing it with melted butter flavored with only a little sage.

Although it's a lot to ask, if you'll look past the packaging, winter squash can be pretty grand.

BALSAMIC SQUASH PUREE

2 tablespoons minced shallots

1/4 cup butter

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

2 cups roast squash pulp

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly grated nutmeg

Cook shallots in medium saucepan with 1 tablespoon butter over medium heat until soft, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add vinegar, increase heat to high and cook until vinegar is reduced to syrup, another 3 to 5 minutes. Add squash pulp and salt and stir to combine. Reduce heat to low and cook until heated through, about 5 minutes. Cut remaining butter into small cubes, add to squash and beat in until fairly smooth. Serve immediately, dusted with freshly grated nutmeg.

Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

159 calories; 708 mg sodium; 31 mg cholesterol; 12 grams fat; 13 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.83 gram fiber.

SQUASH SOUP WITH MOROCCAN SPICES

1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick, broken in half

1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds

1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds

4 whole cloves

2 cardamom pods

1/4 teaspoon dried red chile flakes

2 tablespoons butter

4 cloves garlic, minced

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