How to sweeten seasonal dishes with squash
As we transition from sandals and sundresses to boots and sweaters, the cooks in the kitchen are also shifting gears from the juicy, soft tomatoes of summer to the hardy, leather-skinned squash of autumn, which are naturally engineered to last through the winter.
It takes a bit of effort and determination - the thunk of a powerful chef's knife and a 400 degree oven - to tame the tough exterior of a winter squash and extract the sweet, nutty flavor of its dense, nutrient- packed flesh.
Once pureed into a soup, roasted into a side dish or baked into a pie, however, the hard squash has no peer in the kitchen as it sweetens our transition to winter and its festive, holiday feasts.
“By early November, when the tomatoes are gone, squash becomes our main vegetable,” said Liza Hinman, chef/partner of The Spinster Sisters restaurant in Santa Rosa. “We use the delicata squash in our South A Scramble, and we also put the delicata into our Kale Salad with local apples and bacon.”
Though some may think there is nothing new in the squash world - after all, they are one of the oldest known crops, grown for an estimated 10,000 years in Mexico - the chefs of Wine Country know there's more to learn.
Many are excited this fall to be creating dishes for a handful of new, “designer” squashes recently developed by Chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in partnership with the plant breeders of Cornell University. Through Barber's Row 7 Seed Co., local farmers are now growing some of these custom squashes, bred for chef-driven attributes such as flavor and small size instead of yield and volume.
“So much of seed development is about disease resistance and uniformity,” Hinman said. “From a chef's perspective, flavor is the first priority ... and it often does fall to the bottom of the pile, so it's exciting to think about what the flavor possibilities are.”
At Spinster Sisters, Hinman likes to offer a seasonal vegan dish on the menu. This season, she knew she wanted to do some kind of hearty squash dish with lentils, pickled onions, pepitas and mole sauce.
“There is a bounty of vegetables out there, and it's really fun to play with a vegetable-based dish,” she said. “We wanted to find the right squash because we wanted the squash to be the star of the show.”
Hinman was happy to learn that Rose Madden of Pink Barn Farm in Sebastopol happened to be growing a Row 7 squash, Robin's Koginut. The brown squash with deep ridges is an arranged marriage between an heirloom, Japanese squash known as the Kogigu and the workaday butternut.
“Winter squash is one of my favorite crops to grow,” Madden said. “They're so beautiful, come harvest time, to see them, and it's a great crop to have in your shed in the winter to sell, when it's too cold and rainy to grow other things.”
Although Robin's Koginut is a smaller squash, Madden said hers are very heavy, which means they have a lot of flesh inside, not just a big seed cavity. The squash turns from a mottled green to a rich, brown color when it is ripe. After growing it for the first time, Madden was pleasantly surprised by both the flavor and the yield.
“I roasted it up with some olive oil and salt and sprigs of thyme, and I was pleasantly surprised with the flavor - it's not all hype,” she said. “And I was very impressed with the yield.”
Although Madden only sells directly to farmers or distributors, she plans to launch a Pink Barn Farm CSA membership in January.
For the last two years, Backyard Restaurant Chef/Owner Daniel Kedan and his wife, Marianna Gardenhire, have been growing both the Robin's Koginut and the 898 Squash from Row 7 Seed Co. in order to showcase them at their Forestville restaurant.
“They've just been spectacular, so we saved some seeds from last year,” Kedan said of the 898 Squash, which was bred for concentrated sweetness, flavor and beta-carotene. The squash looks like a baby butternut and can fit into the palm of your hand.
“ It's the most perfect butternut squash you could imagine, with a little nuttiness and creamy, rich flavor, ” Kedan said. “The color, the flavor and the sizing is done with a chef's frame of mind.”
Kedan likes to roast the 898 squash halves until tender, then top them with a maple- hazelnut-bacon glaze. Meanwhile he likes to puree the Koginut flesh to use as a ravioli filling.
“The texture is so amazing,” he said. “It's so creamy - it's like it has its own fat content. We did an agnolotti (crescent-shaped ravioli) with it last year that was unbelievable.”
This fall, Hinman is also using an heirloom squash, the Sweet Meat, as a filling for her raviolo (large-format ravioli) then naps them with a brown butter sauce. The large, tough-skinned squash was first introduced in Portland in 1947. Although famous throughout the Northwest, it is virtually unknown in the rest of the U.S.