Up from “American Harvests”

I came late to the squash fan club. Although my childhood was spent in the Southwest, where some of these versatile vegetables originated, I don’t remember eating more than pumpkin on a regular basis…

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SQUASH: A COUNTRY GARDEN COOKBOOK
Introduction

I came late to the squash fan club. Although my childhood was spent in the Southwest, where some of these versatile vegetables originated, I don’t remember eating more than pumpkin on a regular basis. My mother did her vegetable gardening in the canned goods aisle at the local grocery, and pumpkin was a staple only because all our neighbors were Mexicans who didn’t wait around for Thanksgiving to eat it. They baked it into sweet empanadas all year. They savored the seeds, roasted and salted, as pepitas. And they even taught us to eat the blossoms off the vine, battered and deep-fried.

But it was not until I ripened into a professional eater in New York City that my own appetite for squash truly bloomed. Partly it was piqued by exposure, since so many restaurants — ethnic and American — showcase squash in everything from soup to tarts, from risotto to enchiladas. But it was also stimulated by availability. Any produce stand now routinely stocks a minimum of six to eight varieties, in every shape and color.

When I went off a decade ago to train as a chef, I had never tasted even a squash as mundane as a butternut. My addiction started during class when Stephanie, the one student more interested in restaurant management than cooking, produced what she justifiably boasted was the best of the day. It was nothing more than a simple puree of butternut with a bit on honey, a little butter and fresh thyme, but it was simply spectacular.

The lesson from then on has been that great squash has little to do with the cook and everything to do with the ingredient. No expertise is needed to cut a delicata in half and bake it. The flavor stands alone.

Squash also comes in so many varieties that a cook can shine for weeks producing different dishes using essentially the same ingredient. Most varieties are sold year-round, but this remains one vegetable guaranteed to keep us aware of the seasons. Summer is high time for cooking crooknecks and sunbursts and cymlings, not to mention squash blossoms and baby squash. In fall, when the zucchini are swelling to blimp size, the first winter varieties roll off the vines: pumpkin and turban, buttercup and Hokkaido. And even in darkest winter, when potatoes and onions are the staples, there is always some kind of squash available to brighten up both markets and menus.

The population explosion in the squash cornucopia is partly due to a new realization that this varied vegetable doesn’t just taste good, it is also one of the best choices a health-conscious eater can make. Winter squash in particular are extremely high in beta-carotene, the antioxidant that has been credited with reducing the risk of everything from common ailments to cancer. All squash are also low in calories, high in other vitamins and minerals and full of fiber. And at a time when nutritionists are advocating eating five portions of fruits and vegetables daily, there’s a squash for each serving, from muffins to main dishes.

Squash has been a vital ingredient in North American kitchens for literally centuries. Along with beans and corn, it formed the holy trinity of the native diet long before Columbus set sail. When the conquistadors arrived in the Southwest in the early 1500s, they were taught by Native Americans to cook with every part of the squash, including the seeds and the flesh, which they dried on stakes in the sun to ensure provisions for the winter.

The name squash actually comes from the Narragansett Indian word askutasquash, meaning “a green thing eaten raw,” which sounds like the worst way to consume it. Once the Pilgrims came along, they adapted squash to their diets and squash found a place on the fire.

Thanks to this New World bounty, cuisines all over the world, from Italy to India, have been enriched. Because of my background, I’m most inclined to give squash a Mexican accent. But since I now live in New York City, the ultimate melting pot, the recipes in this book showcase more universal flavors.

And all of them reflect my late-blooming fondness for squash. My consort often seems baffled when he hears me gushing over a newfound variety, savoring it the way some people do truffles or foie gras and insisting he agree on its wonders. “I like squash fine,” he’ll say, “but you love it.” Converts are always the most devoted, especially when it comes to squash.

(Forgive me: this was written in 1993.)

SUNBURST SQUASH STUFFED WITH SPINACH AND GRUYERE

These colorful stuffed squash are meant as a side dish, but they can also be served as a brunch or lunch main course. Try the same filling in zucchini or yellow squash.

4 medium sunburst squash, each 3 1/2 to 4 inches in diameter
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
6 shiitake or button mushrooms, stemmed and finely chopped
2 shallots, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 large bunch fresh spinach leaves, carefully washed and finely chopped
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Dash of cayenne pepper
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 large egg, lightly beaten
3/4 cup grated Gruyere or Swiss cheese
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Fill a large pot three-fourths full of water and bring to a rolling boil. Drop the squash in and boil 5 minutes. Drain well and let cool.

Cut a thin slice off the bottom of each squash, removing just enough so that it will stand upright. Then slice off the tops (approximately 1/2 inch thick) and hollow out the centers, leaving a thin shell. Set aside. (Reserve the nominal amount of flesh removed from the centers for another use, or discard.)

In a skillet over medium heat, melt the butter with oil. Add mushrooms, shallots and garlic and sauté approximately 10 minutes, or until soft. Stir in the soy sauce and add the spinach. Raise the heat to medium-high. Sauté about 5 minutes, or until spinach is tender and most of the liquid has evaporated. Transfer to a bowl and let cool slightly, then season with the nutmeg, cayenne, salt and black pepper. Stir in the egg and 1/2 cup of the Gruyere and mix well.

Mound the mixture into the hollowed-out squash. Arrange in a single layer in a baking dish just large enough to hold all the squash upright. Sprinkle the remaining 1/4 cup cheese over the tops. Pour hot water into the pan to a depth of 1/2 inch.

Bake approximately 30 minutes, or until the filling is set and the squash is tender. Serve immediately.
Serves 4.

SAVORY ZUCCHINI AND CHEESE MADELEINES

A French madeleine mold converts a quiche-like filling into a savory hors d’oeuvre with a crunchy crust and moist center. If you don’t have a madeleine pan, use miniature muffin tins and bake about 15 minutes.

2 large eggs
2 tablespoons heavy cream
2 teaspoons Creole or Pommery coarse-grain mustard
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons dried basil, crumbled
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Dash of cayenne pepper
1 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 cup coarse-grind yellow cornmeal
2 cups firmly packed, coarsely grated zucchini (about 3 medium squash)
1 small onion, finely diced
1 small red bell pepper, cored, seeded and finely diced
1 cup grated Gruyere, Jarlsberg (or other) cheese

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Oil 3 madeleine molds and set aside. (If you only have one, work in batches, letting the mold cool before refilling.)

In a large bowl, combine the eggs, cream, mustard, melted butter, garlic, basil, salt and black and cayenne pepper. Mix well. Stir in the flour, baking powder and cornmeal and mix well. Add the zucchini, onion, red pepper and cheese and mix thoroughly. Spoon into the prepared molds.

Bake 20 minutes, or until puffed and golden brown (the centers will still be moist). Turn out of the molds and serve warm, or let cool on wire racks to room temperature.
Makes about 3 dozen.

KABOCHA, CRANBERRY AND GINGER TART

Squash is normally pureed for desserts, but it has a superb texture when simply grated and added raw to a tart filling. Butternut or buttercup squash can be used instead of Kabocha.

2 cups coarsely grated Kabocha squash
1/4 cup finely diced crystallized ginger
1/2 cup sun-dried cranberries
3 eggs
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup heavy cream
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 9-inch tart shell, partially baked

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a small bowl, stir together the squash, ginger and cranberries. In another small bowl, lightly beat the eggs with the honey, cream and butter. Add to the squash mixture along with the salt. Mix until fully combined. Pour into the prebaked crust. Bake 45 to 50 minutes, or until set. Let cool completely before serving.

Makes 1 tart, 8 to 10 servings.