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Disappearing winter squash

(article, Deborah Madison)

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As readers of this column may know, I always use New Year's Day, or some day around the first, to make a clean and fresh start in my kitchen, a room that suffers daily abuse. 

Mostly this involves cleaning out the refrigerator, firmly tossing out condiments that haven’t budged from their spots during the last year, assiduously making an effort to use whatever needs using, and combing through the freezer just to make sure I know what’s there, so that it will get used before the next crops of tomatoes, peaches, and persimmons appear.  

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While always rewarding, this is also a rather sobering exercise, for it never fails to reveal evidence of gross neglect, lapsed intentions, and a mysterious accumulation of crumbs and debris. A jar of probiotic pills that promised either youth or weight loss — I can no longer decipher the oil-stained label to see which — has been residing in the fridge for years. Tin foil that once served as a shelf liner is now held fast to the plastic by an unknown substance with a yellowish hue. What had I been thinking?

What occurred to me this year, after cleaning the refrigerator and then moving on to the cupboards, is the way our foods can become visual fixtures in our lives, at which point they disappear. Jars of beans at some point shift from the foreground, where they exist as food, to a visual background — no different, really, from books on a shelf. Pickled beets and jars of canned pears have taken up permanent residence on one shelf just because they looked so beautiful I could never bear to use them. 

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Still, there’s a point where I’ve ceased to see them unless I really make an effort to, and that’s when I find that I’ve been harboring them and other foods, some for years. Witness the jar of red Santa Maria beans so old that even a pressure cooker would be challenged to soften them.

You might think this couldn’t happen to my large winter squash, but it has. Those gorgeous heirlooms that I bought at the Boulder farmers’ market in October have assumed dominion on a large round table ever since. They sit there the way some people pile up stacks of art books and vases of roses: the soft blue-green Sibleys, the elegant lace-covered Winter Luxury Pie pumpkin, the dark and warty Marina de Chioggia, the ever-handsome Rouge Vif d’Etampes, and others. They warm the room with their rich colors, varied shapes, and eccentricities, and have brought me much joy over the past three months. 

But they, too, like the jars of beans and pickled beets, have become a somewhat blurred feature in my domestic landscape. After moving them so that the table could be set for a party, they suddenly came back into view. Not only are they beautiful to behold (and big and heavy), they’re also edible, and they should be eaten before they dry up inside.

One of the challenges for many is how to deal with larger-than-usual cucurbits. What do you do with a 12-pound squash? How do you cut it? This is one time you want a big, heavy, chef’s knife, and here’s what you can do:

# Insert the point of the knife into the squash, press down hard to plunge it in, then pull the knife towards you, in a rocking motion if need be. Chances are the squash will start to crack. Loosen the knife, reposition it along the breaking line, and repeat. Eventually you will succeed in cutting it into two more or less equal pieces. Don’t worry if they’re not the same size; they probably won’t be. (If cutting a large squash into pieces is beyond the capacity of your knife or your strength, bake it in the oven whole until it softens. Then it will be easy to halve, and the seeds will slip out with ease.)
# Scrape out the seeds. 
# Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. This is optional, but I like to do it.
# Turn the squash cut side down on the sheet pan and bake at around 350 degrees (or whatever temperature is convenient if you’re baking something else at the same time) until it is very soft when you press on it with your fingers. With a large specimen, this can take as long as two hours. You can brush the cut surfaces with oil first, but it really isn’t necessary. The squash, if it’s not too old, may exude some clear liquid, which will be reabsorbed into the cooked flesh. Or, if the cooking takes a very long time, the liquid will simply evaporate and blacken. 
# Once you have a cooked squash, you can immediately feed a crowd with it. Season it with salt and pepper, add butter, or drizzle olive oil atop it. But what’s more likely is that you can scoop out the flesh and use it over time in many ways. You needn’t feel rushed to use it all up within a week, as it freezes well. Portion it into containers that you feel will make sense for you, make a note of what it is, and put it in the freezer. 

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Then, when you’re ready, use it any of the following ways:

 Make any number of squash soups.
 Feature the cooked squash in a risotto.
 Enjoy roughly mashed winter squash with the aforementioned butter, olive oil, or mascarpone, fried sage leaves, toasted pecans, harissa, and so forth. (See Winter Squash Purée).
 Add cooked winter squash to muffins or breads. (I used it in the Winter Squash Cake with Dates, adapted from a recipe in Seasonal Fruit Desserts, where it provided both its sweet flavor and moistness.)
 Fry it in clarified butter with blue cheese scattered over the top, or fresh mozzarella, or Parmesan. The squash will caramelize on the bottom. Add pepper.
 Stuff a ravioli.
 Turn it into a sweet or savory custard or gratin.

And once you've consigned several bags of cooked winter squash to the freezer, don’t let them linger until they’re part of your freezer landscape. You’ll want to use it before the next harvest comes around again, or before something more enticing, like asparagus and peas, appears to take the place of squash altogether.

Winter squash is for winter. So use it now, through March at the latest — while it’s most appealing.

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


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