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Expectations squashed

(article, Deborah Madison)

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I know. It’s winter squash again, and here I just wrote about it (and sage) in September." And yes, indeed, I've written about it a few times in the past. 

But I'm a squash fan, and I can't resist sharing an experience with you: Earlier this month, I was in North Carolina, where I worked with the chef at Davidson College to prepare my recipes for some 700 people (!) and conduct a squash tasting for considerably fewer. 

As always, it was an informative exercise, and this was a good time of year to do it, as we’ll all be eating squash for the next few months. Besides, you might want to arrange a tasting with your friends.

I love doing squash tastings because there are invariably surprises, and this time was no exception. The lineup, for starters, had me a bit puzzled. First there was Carnival, for which I could find no information anywhere and therefore had no idea what kind of creature this festive-looking squash was. Candy Roaster, the heirloom from the Carolinas and Georgia, was one I had confidence in, having been told it was a wonderful squash by North Carolinians last spring.  

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Sweet Dumplings"]

Another went by the general name Calabaza, which pretty much means “squash” and therefore tells you nothing. This was a big turban squash, the kind we usually regard as decorative rather than edible, so my expectations were low. The Buttercup was missing its little belly button, so I wasn’t entirely sure if it really was one or not. And the Kabocha also wasn't much like the ones I’m used to seeing. 

No one could even find a Delicata to bring in, a squash I thought was utterly common. The Sweet Dumpling, usually a petite little squash perfect for one serving, was as big as the Carnival and the Acorn — that is, well over a pound. We also had the common Butternut. 

So here was an array of vegetables that should have been utterly familiar but were, each in their own way, questionable, unfamiliar, or simply just not quite like the ones I was used to seeing. It’s good to know we’re not absolutely uniform across the culinary boards, after all.

A squash tasting involves steaming or roasting a variety of squash, then tasting them without any adornment whatsoever. No salt. No pepper. No fried sage leaves. No butter. 

I like to have the uncooked ones on hand as well as the cooked, so that people can see what they look like whole, then when cooked and cut into pieces. The difference in color, texture, and thickness of flesh is always surprising to participants, as are the differences among the same squash, cooked. 

In this tasting, I paired squashes in each round partly to expedite the event, but also because it’s always more memorable when you take one bite followed by another of a different kind. Here’s some of what we learned:

 The mysterious Carnival, which resembled an Acorn, was not only quite festive in appearance, but also delicious, with creamy-textured, bright-orange flesh that was moist and sweet.
 Likewise, the Calabaza turban squash, which I thought would be watery and nondescript, was a favorite, again for its sweetness, texture, and good flavor.
 The Butternut, not surprisingly, surpassed the Acorn in sweetness, depth of flavor, and smoothness of flesh. (It was not familiar to some of the tasters.)
 The Candy Roaster was pale, watery, stringy, and not very tasty. (But since this is an heirloom, I still have high hopes for it. When I tasted Candy Roasters in May, I found them much better — denser, sweeter, of deeper hue. Why was it so much different? Was it the season? Where it was grown? When it was picked?) 
* The Buttercup was dense and dry-fleshed, not quite as sweet as the Kabocha, which we paired it with. 

While the group favored sweetness on the whole, the more somber chestnut flavor of the Buttercup had a certain promise for savory dishes, as did its drier flesh. (Originally, long before we could buy everything all the time everywhere, the Buttercup was bred to resemble a sweet potato for cooks in North Dakota.)

Likes and dislikes were expressed, but the best part about a tasting like this is that it makes such an impression. Participants had never tried one or another (or most) of the squashes. They admitted they had been hesitant to do so before, but now they would. I also came face to face with my own prejudices when varieties with low expectations turned out to be exceptional, and vice versa. 

One woman sent me a note after the class saying, ”I never had tasted so many different kinds side by side, so I really wasn’t aware of the differences in flavor and texture. Now I won’t look askance at those weird-looking squashes at the farmer's market — I’ll summon up my courage and try a new variety!”

And there you are. I like to think that even a small event like this will result in more adventurous shoppers and eaters who will be the very ones who eventually build support for any truly great but seldom seen and not well-known squashes. 

After all, if you buy a dud, what have you lost? A few dollars. But you’ve gained an experience.

You can do a squash tasting at home. Better, you can do it with friends, which make it all a bit easier. And while you might forget what you read, you probably won’t forget what you taste.

reference-image, l