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Big, special squashes

(article, Deborah Madison)

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Fall brings us field and garden treasures, among them apples (more about those soon!) and winter squash. I’m mad for winter squashes, and if I could grow only one type of food in my garden, this would be it. There are many beautiful vegetables, but to me none are more handsome, amusing, and surprising than those tough-skinned cucurbits. 

Their sculpted shapes are gorgeous and varied. They can be bizarrely covered with growths that look like peanuts. They glow orange when glowing is needed, or remain as subdued as a gunmetal-gray sky. And then, of course, there’s what’s inside and all the things we can do with this firm, yellow flesh. 

If you haven’t, do take a look at Amy Goldman’s book, The Compleat Squash, A Passionate Grower’s Guide to Pumpkins, Squashes, and Gourds. You’ll find it hard not to get hooked.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="To her, no vegetable is more handsome than a tough-skinned winter squash."]

I also have a special admiration for those who are passionate growers of pumpkins and squashes, because if you’re selling squashes at a farmers' market, they can be a lot of bother. They’re heavy, for starters, and they all have to be lifted into a truck, driven to market, and then lifted out for display. And then the whole process has to be repeated for those that didn’t sell. This in itself demands extra dedication. 

Next are the customers to consider. You may be enticed by a beautiful large Musquée de Provence, but even at the modest price of $2.50 a pound, a single specimen could cost $40 or more. Even if you spring for it, intending to enjoy its form for a time before actually cooking it, there’s the challenge of carrying such a heavy vegetable to your car along with all your other purchases. 

[%image sibley float=right width=300 caption="The Sibley is an heirloom variety."]One way this problem is dealt with in European markets (and sometimes here, too) is to sell the squash by the wedge, which is much more manageable. Or, as I saw last week at the Boulder farmers' market in Colorado, one farmer cheerfully encouraging her customers to “Cook the whole thing! Cook it all, eat what you want, and freeze the rest!” 

This is a great idea, but how would you cook a very large squash? You cut it in half (if you can!), scrape out the seeds, brush the flesh with oil, and roast it in a moderate oven (350 to 375 degrees) until it’s very tender. Then you just scoop out the flesh.  

If you absolutely can’t cut it up, bake it whole. Once it begins to soften, you can pull it out and halve it, or just let it continue cooking until softened, then halve it and scoop out the seeds. Once it’s soft, you might take the precaution of poking a few holes in it to forestall possible explosions in the oven.

Unusual winter squash have long been the province of the farmers' market and its experimental growers. This year alone I’ve seen the blue-skinned Marina di Chioggia; a long torpedo-shaped blue-gray Sibley; a Winter Luxury Pie Pumpkin, with its delicate lacelike covering; a Hopi squash; and the Musquée de Provence and Rouge Vif D’Etampes, which are both Cinderella-coach-like pumpkins — that is, squat and convoluted. There was also a Long Island Cheese pumpkin, similarly convoluted but not as extreme, and the bizarre wart-covered Galeux d’Eysines. 

These all happen to be heirloom varieties, each with its own virtue and all worth buying, eating, and in that way, preserving. Seeing such diversity, I felt grateful that there are passionate, intrepid souls dedicated to growing these handsome creatures, hauling them to market, and giving them their names.

[%image diningroomtable float=right width=400 caption="Deborah's squash-laden table."]

Upon my return from Colorado, I was surprised to see, in Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, bins of what were called, rather indiscriminately, Halloween pumpkins. Among them were Musquée de Provence and Rouge Vif D’Etampes and a few other quite unusual varieties. They were cheap ($5.99 each) but not given their true names, so buyers didn't know the real identities of the treasures they were carting home. 

On the one hand, it’s great that such unusual varieties are becoming mainstream, but on the other, it's a shame that people probably don’t know that they have history (and food) in their hands, and that these treasures are just jumbled up with who knows what kind of pumpkin.

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I hope that your farmers' market has a great variety of winter squash and pumpkins, because we have months ahead of us to explore their virtues. For the moment, I’ve settled for baking a good old butternut squash from the farmers' market, mashing the flesh, then cooking it in a little ghee, slices of mozzarella set over the top to melt, lots of pepper, and a garnish of sage leaves fried in olive oil. Absolutely delicious!

Why am I not cooking one of the other varieties? Because I have to admire them first for at least a few weeks, if not longer, before removing them from their place of honor on my dining-room table. For the moment, they’re just too beautiful to eat.

p(bio). Deborah Madison is the author of numerous award-winning cookbooks, including Local Flavors. She lives in New Mexico.


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