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Dealing with Large Winter Squash

January 17, 2011 | Tags: Deborah Madison , Food , Fruit , Vegetables | Post comment

Dealing with Large Winter Squash

If you’ve become a farmers market shopper, you may have yielded to temptation last fall and come home with some gorgeous but very large heirloom squash or pumpkins. For many of us, there is no more fascinating vegetable at the market than these, and the heirlooms are particularly fetching. They might have smooth convoluted surfaces, as in the Cheese Pumpkin, Musquee de Provence or Rouge vif d’Etampes (sometimes called a Cinderella pumpkin). You might be drawn to the eccentric looking Marina di Chioggia with it’s covering of warty looking bubbles, or a handsome giant blue Hubbard. The cylindrical blue-green Sibely might be an heirloom that calls out to you, or you might be drawn to the elegant Winter Luxury Pie pumpkin with its tall stem and lace-like covering. Personally I have all of these sitting on my dining room table for I am one who can’t resist the seductive charms of the cucurbits.

The difficulty however, is that many of these are very large vegetables weighing 14 pounds and more (but sometimes less), and dealing with them can be a challenge. Even a 7-pound squash is larger than any you’ll find at your supermarket. You don’t want to let them go to waste for they are very good to eat and plentiful, too.  So, what do you do?

This is one time you want a big, heavy, chef’s knife, but if you don’t have one, there is an option: Bake your squash whole until tender, then halve it and remove the seeds and scoop out the flesh. But bake it in a roasting pan because a well-baked squash can collapse and create quite a mess in your oven.

If you do have a knife, first knock off the stem with the dull side, then insert the point into the squash, press down hard to plunge it in, pulling the knife towards you then away, using a rocking motion. Chances are the squash will start to crack. Loosen the knife, reposition it along the breaking line and repeat.  Take you’re your time and don’t rush; it’s an awkward task. Eventually you will succeed in cutting your squash into two more or less equal pieces.  Scrape out the seeds. (I use them in soup stock.)

1. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. This is optional, but it makes cleaning the pan much easier.

2.  Place the squash cut side down on the sheet pan (no need to oil it) and bake at around 350’ (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 creature this can take as long as two hours. The squash may exude some clear, sweet liquid. It will either be reabsorbed into the flesh, or if the cooking takes a very long time, the liquid will evaporate and blacken.

3. Once you have a cooked squash, you can immediately feed a crowd with it. But what’s more likely to happen is that you will scoop out the flesh, which you can use over time in many ways.  You needn’t feel rushed to use it all up within a week—it freezes. Portion it into containers that you feel will make sense for you, making a note of what it is, and freeze. 

4. When you’re ready, use it any of the following ways:

•    Make any number of squash soups
•    Feature the cooked squash in a barley risotto
•    Enjoy roughly mashed winter squash with butter, olive oil, sesame oil, or a spoonful of mascarpone, sage leaves fried
     in olive oil (the oil used to season the squash), toasted pecans, or harissa
•    Stuff ravioli with the puree
•    Add cooked winter squash to muffins or breads for moisture and sweetness
•    Brown it in a very little bit of clarified butter or olive oil and scatter blue cheese, mozzarella, or Parmesan over the top;
     the squash will caramelize on the bottom and the cheese will melt and become more aromatic; add pepper 
•    Turn it into a sweet or savory custard or gratin
•    Serve it warm, for dessert, with yogurt, maple syrup and toasted pecans

And if you consigned your cooked winter squash to the freezer, don’t let it linger. You’ll want to use it before the next harvest comes around again, or before something more enticing, like asparagus and peas, appear to take the place of squash altogether. Winter squash is for winter; use it now through March, at the latest, while it’s most appealing and still has plenty of moisture. As it dries out it will lose its flavor.