From acorn to zucchini, never quash a use for squash

October 25, 1995|By Regina Schrambling | Regina Schrambling,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

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 store, 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 of 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 butternut. My addiction started during a class about vegetables when Stephanie, the one student more interested in restaurant management than cooking, produced what she justifiably boasted was the best dish of the day. It was nothing more than a simple puree of butternut with a bit of honey, a little butter and fresh thyme, but it was simply spectacular.

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 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 main 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 that 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.

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.

Variation on a theme

This variation on classic pumpkin soup takes a little more time than the butternut bisque but has more flavor nuances. It is rich but cream-free and looks spectacular served in a hollowed-out winter squash shell. A turban squash can be used in place of the pumpkin.

Caramelized pumpkin and onion soup with smoked turkey

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1 large (approximately 3 pounds) pie pumpkin

1 teaspoon plus 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 large yellow onions, sliced thin

2 carrots, cut into fine julienne

1 tablespoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon ground sage

4 cups turkey or chicken stock, preferably homemade

salt, freshly ground white pepper

1/4 pound high-quality smoked turkey, cut into 2 1/4 -inch-wide strips

1/2 cup shredded Gruyere cheese

Cut pumpkin in half and scrape out seeds. Brush cut surfaces lightly with 1 teaspoon oil, then place cut side down in glass baking dish. Bake at 375 degrees until flesh is very soft and cut sides are slightly caramelized, about 1 hour. Let cool, then scrape out pulp.

While squash bakes, warm remaining 3 tablespoons oil in large soup pot over medium heat. Add onions and carrots and cook, stirring often, until soft, 15 minutes. Sprinkle with sugar and continue cooking, stirring often, until vegetables are browned and caramelized, 10 to 15 minutes longer.

Stir in sage, stock and pumpkin pulp and bring to boil. Let cool slightly. Process soup, in batches, in blender and puree until smooth. Return puree to soup pot and reheat gently, but do not allow to boil. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Ladle into individual bowls -- or into hollowed-out winter squash shell -- and garnish with turkey strips and cheese.

Pairing corn with squash

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