There are only two foods that I truly can’t stomach. One is winter squash. In any form. I am a grown woman and I still get a gag reflex from a mouthful of the stuff. It’s embarrassing, actually, and somehow feels morally wrong to turn my nose up at such wholesome food, packed with vitamins A and C, fiber, calcium, and iron — and available in such fantastical, inexpensive bounty right here in Minnesota. (The second is melon, and that one doesn’t bother me in the least. I just pick the good stuff out of the fruit cup and leave the cheap, melony filler for the kids.)
I could probably avoid most quivers of conscience were it not for one thing: our CSA box. June’s box of leafy green joy too quickly turns to September’s box of cucurbit dread. We got well over a dozen this year in the summer share alone: cute little acorns, elegant delicatas, Martha Stewart-y turbans, and a horsey seven-pound butternut.
And they are beautiful. They look settled and homey when they overflow the giant silver bowl on my counter. The big kitchen knife bites into them with a satisfying scrunch. Inside, the orange flesh is so magically orange that I almost convince myself that I can like this stuff.
Their usual fate is baked goods. I pass them out to visiting friends until it’s time to reclaim the counter, then I split them all in half, scoop out the seeds (I do like those!), and bake them. The pureed pulp goes in the freezer for a season’s worth of “pumpkin” bread, “pumpkin” doughnuts, and “pumpkin” pancakes. (That way our old friends cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, and clove mask the squashy taste entirely.)
This fall, I decided, would be different. I would find a way to consume the beautiful pile of squash like a grown-up and enjoy it.
When I talk to people who love squash their eyes light up. And they invariably offer advice: “My kids love it with maple syrup,” “I make a great squash-apple soup” — always something sweet. Well, I don’t much like sweet in my savory, and what squash (and melon, for that matter) is missing is a good hit of acid. And a little heat. And salt and fat makes everything better, right? Okay. I think I have some ideas.
Strategy one: Spices
This is a lot like my old standby, pumpkin bread. I made sweet, spicy “pumpkin” butter. (“Pumpkin” sounds cozy and fall-like; “squash” sounds like “You’re not getting up from this table until you finish your dinner, young lady.”) A nice little hostess gift and even I think it’s tasty on my toast in the morning.
Do not seal pumpkin butter in canning jars! It is too low in acid to preserve this way and deadly bacteria could grow. Keep it in the fridge for up to a few weeks. It also freezes nicely.
Makes about six cups
4 c pureed squash*
3 c sugar
2 tsp cardamom
1 tbsp cinnamon
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cloves
1. Combine all ingredients in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat.
2. Heat to boiling. Boiling sugar is like hot lava, so keep a splatter guard on hand.
3. Stirring frequently (constantly, near the end) to keep a crust from forming on the bottom, boil until the mixture has turned a nice, caramelly brown.
*Note: To make squash puree, cut a squash in half through the equator, scoop out seeds, place cut side-down on a rimmed baking sheet, and bake at 400˚F until pressing a finger against the skin leaves an impression. Allow to cool slightly, then scoop out flesh and puree in a food processor.
Strategy two: Acid
Squash is entirely lacking in any acidity and I happen to really love a good hit of acid in my food. Most recipes for squash soup are based on apple cider or just squash and cream. But I once had a tomato-squash soup from Turtle Bread at a friend’s house that I actually enjoyed. This isn’t Turtle Bread’s recipe, but it was inspired by that soup. The key here is that you’ve got at least equal parts tomato and squash. You may even want to add more tomato.
1 large shallot, diced
½ large onion, diced (yield about 1 c)
2 large cloves garlic, diced
1 dried red pepper, sliced
2 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp oil
4 c squash puree
4 c crushed tomatoes in their own juice
1 c cream
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar (or to taste)
crumbled blue cheese (optional)
1. Place shallot, onion, garlic, red pepper, dried oregano, salt, and oil in large heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat.
2. Stirring occasionally, cook until onions are soft and translucent.
3. Add squash and tomatoes and bring to a simmer.
4. Use a stick blender to puree and fully mix all ingredients. (Or blend in batches in a standing blender).
5. Add cream and gently heat through. Serve with balsamic vinegar or blue cheese.
Strategy three: Heat
This strategy seems like almost a cop out: Overpower the squash so that it becomes nothing more than the mild-mannered texture in a bowl of chili. Well, that was in fact the goal. Squash-lovers in our family could still detect their favorite squashy taste. The rest of us could enjoy a bowl of bone-warming heat while feeling good about all the nutritive goodness in there. The trick is to cut the squash nice and small so the texture is like chili and not like squash in sauce. Unlike the other recipes, it really matters here which squash you choose. Butternut is easy to peel and cut and will hold its shape nicely.
Adapted from Sheila Lukins’ All Around the World Cookbook
2 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
3 large cloves garlic
2 tbsp chili powder
1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tbsp dried oregano
1 tsp ground allspice
2 dried chile peppers, seeds and ribs removed, diced
4 c plum tomatoes in their own juices
¼ c dry red wine
4 lbs butternut squash, peeled and cut into half-inch dice
salt and pepper to taste
small bunch cilantro, chopped
1. Place oil, onion, garlic, and spices in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat. Stirring occasionally, cook until onion is soft and translucent.
2. Add tomatoes, wine, and squash. Raise heat to medium-high and bring to a low simmer. Cook until squash is soft, about 20 minutes.
3. Season to taste. Stir in cilantro.
Strategy four: Fat
Another cop out? Maybe so. The trick here is to stuff a pumpkin with so much tasty stuff that you won’t even notice when you get a bite of the pumpkin flesh. It’s a trick parents have used since time immemorial, but it’s questionable whether it works on either children or recalcitrant adults. It does make a nice showy dinner for your pumpkin-loving friends (and your other friends will politely eat the stuffing).
Pumpkin stuffed with everything good
Serves 4-8, depending on the size of your pumpkin
Adapted from from Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table: More than 300 Recipes from My Home to Yours
1 pumpkin (mine was 3.75 lbs)
1-2 c cooked rice (Dorie used cubed bread)
1-2 c cooked sausage (I used turkey breakfast sausage)
¼-½ c cubed cheese (I used cheddar)
fresh thyme, to taste
freshly ground pepper
freshly grated nutmeg
½-1 c half and half
1. Heat oven to 350˚F.
2. Cut off top of pumpkin and scoop out guts as if making a jack-o-lantern.
3. Mix rice, sausage, cheese, and spices in a large bowl and place in cavern of pumpkin. (How much stuffing you need will vary with the size of your pumpkin.)
4. Pour half and half over stuffing until it just reaches the top.
5. Replace pumpkin cap and place on rimmed baking sheet. Bake until pressing a finger against the skin of the pumpkin leaves an indentation. This will take between one and two hours, depending on the size of your pumpkin.
Note: I did not add salt because the sausage and cheese I used were very salty. You may wish to salt to taste.