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How to sweeten seasonal dishes with squash

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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.

To help guide you in the fall kitchen, here is our highly subjective list of Top 10 squash you should get to know, along with suggestions on how to prepare and serve each one.

1) Kabocha squash — This Japanese squash has dense, intensely yellow flesh and an earthy flavor with just a touch of sweetness. It has a dark green rind with mottled blue-gray striping, but can also have a deep-orange skin. The shape is round but flattened at the stem end instead of pointed, which is how you can tell the deep-orange version from the red kuri squash.

Mei Ibach, culinary teacher at El Molino High School, said kabocha is her favorite squash, due to its sweet flavor and firm texture.

“It is very versatile and holds up to the heat during cooking,” she said. “I like to cook them with various techniques, from roasting and steaming to stir-frying and deep-frying.”

Every Thanksgiving, Ibach makes an aromatic Kabocha Squash Soup with Coconut and Ginger, featuring a garnish of crème fraiche, pumpkin seeds and truffle oil (recipe below).

2) Sugar Pumpkin — These small pumpkins, which are actually hard squash, are bred for sweetness (not size like field pumpkins) and offer a mildly sweet flesh with a rich, pumpkin flavor. When ripe, the color is uniformly orange, and their round shape that can be hollowed out and filled with soup. These pumpkins are ideal for soup, curries, stews and — of course — pies.

“Sugar pumpkins are so cute to have around this time of year,” said Tracy Mattson of Cookie ... take a bite! in Santa Rosa’s Larkfield Shopping Center. “They make a great base for baking and are easy to work with — no worrying about a large ball shifting under the weight of the knife. We love the color they bring to our seasonal Pumpkin Puff cookies.”

For a pie, however, Mattson prefers to use a butternut squash. According to Food & Wine magazine, most cans of pumpkin puree are actually made from a mix of winter squashes such as butternut and Blue Hubbard.

3) Red kuri — This squash has a vivid orange skin, with no green, and is shaped like an onion or a teardrop. The mildly sweet, yellow flesh has a chestnutlike flavor and a smooth, dense texture.

“This is another Japanese squash variety, sometimes referred to as Hokkaido squash,” Ibach said. “It has a more delicate and mellow, nutty flavor than the kabocha, but can be used in a similar manner.”

Ibach suggests using the red kuri for soups, stews, curry dishes and stir-fries. You can bake them into cakes, muffins, cookies or pumpkin pies.

4) Butternut Squash — The squash is named for its peanut-like shape and yellow-tan rind. It features a seed cavity at the bulb end and solid squash on the large stem, making it ideal for recipes that require quantity. Its bright, orange-yellow flesh is sweet and slightly nutty, with a smooth texture.

Best used in soups, pies and purees.

Chef Bob Simontacchi of the Gravenstein Grill in Sebastopol loves to cook hearty soups, stews and pasta with fall crops like butternut squash.

“Butternut squash invokes a sense of season for most people, especially when paired with other fall fruits like apples and spices associated with the fall and winter such as nutmeg,” he said. “When you see winter squash growing on the vines underneath orchards of apple trees full of ripe apples, it feels natural to put them together in a dish.”

At the restaurant, Simontacchi makes a Butternut Squash Soup with apple juice and balances out the sweetness with rosemary, nutmeg, onion and fennel.

He preps the squash by cutting the ends off with a knife, then uses a sharp vegetable peeler to take the skin off with careful strokes. Then he cuts it in half, removes the seeds, and does a rough chop for the soup (see recipe below).

5) Delicata — A thin, edible skin and sweet yellow flesh makes this squash a short-lived fall treat that won’t last through the winter. Its oblong shape and yellow color with green mottling closely resembles its summer squash cousins. Its thin walls make it quick cooking, and when sliced across its width, you can create scalloped moons or halves that can be roasted. Bonus for the home cook: its skin is edible and doesn’t require peeling.

Tommy Stribling, sous chef at Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate and Gardens in Santa Rosa, likes to shave the raw delicata squash with a mandoline, then serve it in a fall salad with pomegranate seeds, pepitas and a pumpkinseed oil vinaigrette. He would pair it with one of Kendall-Jackson rieslings or the new viognier.

Trivia department: The name “squash” is derived from the Massachusett Native American word “askutasquash,” which means “eaten raw.”

6) Spaghetti Squash — This bright yellow, oblong squash got its name from its noodle-like interior. The pale golden flesh is stringy, like strands of pasta, when separated with a fork and has a mild flavor. It is best used baked, with strands separated then mixed with flavor-boosting pesto or marinara sauce.

Spaghetti squash is a favorite of Lisa Raffety, Tierra Vegetables Farmstand manager, whose family is Italian.

“It’s like guilt-free pasta,” she said. “I roast it with garlic, and then make a basil-roasted garlic butter to put on top. I usually make enough for two or three days at a time.”

7) Acorn Squash — Shaped like its namesake, the acorn, this ridged squash has a dull, green rind that helps hold its shaped when baked and makes it ideal for stuffing. The yellow-orange flesh has a mild flavor and a tender-firm texture when cooked.

Home cook Amy Meiers of Santa Rosa, who has won all kinds of amateur cooking contests, loves to stuff this squash for a “kitchen sink” meal or as a vegetarian option at Thanksgiving.

“They are so beautiful when stuffed and served individually for dinner,” she said. “Throw some leftover rice, a little ground sausage/beef/turkey, some mushrooms, greens, cranberries, a little cheese, and then bake in the acorn squash ... I also like slicing them (keeping the skin on) and roasting them to add to salads. They look like beautiful flowers!”

8) Robin’s Koginut Squash — This hybrid squash blends the smooth, richness of the Japanese Kogigu squash with the sweetness of the butternut squash. Shaped like a squat, bronze pumpkin, it offers the best of both worlds – sweet flavor and smooth texture. Best served roasted, stuffed or sliced in a salad.

“This squash has meaty flesh like a pumpkin,” Hinman said. “The Kogigu has a richness to it, and the butternut gives the sweetness that works well with the spices in mole like cinnamon and clove.” (See recipe below.)

9) 898 Squash — This squash is a more concentrated version of butternut, only it fits in the palm of your hand. Boasting high amounts of beta-carotene, the 898 squash was bred for big flavor and slightly thicker skin, boosting its storability. Best roasted or pureed.

“The 898s are great for roasting them whole,” Kedan said. “It’s good for a single serving of split between two, and it has great plate appeal.” (See recipe below.)

10) Sweet Meat squash — This delicious heirloom from Oregon has a deep-orange flesh that is both savory and sweet. The hard, silver-gray skin on this large squash helps it last long after harvest, and its dense, rich flesh lends itself to simple cooking methods. The hardest part is cutting it open — use a large, heavy-duty butcher knife. Best baked into a pie or puréed as a filling for ravioli.

“It’s pretty dry but meaty, and you don’t have to press out all the water,” Hinman said. “We get ours from FEED Sonoma, which sources it from Blue Leg Farms, a small, sustainable farm in Santa Rosa. “

______

The following recipe is from Mei Ibach, culinary teacher at El Molino High School. For variations, you could also add cooked crab or bay shrimp to the soup.

Kabocha Squash Soup with Coconut and Ginger

Makes 6 servings

1 small kabocha squash, split in half and deseeded

— Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

¼ cup canola or vegetable oil

½ cup fine diced yellow onion

1 cup thinly sliced leek

2 teaspoons minced garlic

4 teaspoons fresh grated ginger

3 cups plus vegetarian stock

2 cups coconut milk

¼ cup rice wine or dry sherry

1 ½ teaspoons Madras curry powder

½ cup crème fraiche

2 tablespoon toasted pumpkin seeds

— truffle oil, for garnish (optional)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Cut the squash into big chunks with the skin on, sprinkle with 2 tablespoon oil and a small handful of salt and black pepper and place them in a single layer on the sheet pan. Bake for 30 minutes in a 375 degree oven. Remove from the oven and let cool, then peel the skin.

Meanwhile, preheat a medium soup pot, add the remaining oil and sauté the onion, leek, garlic and ginger for 3 minutes or until caramelized.

Add the stock and let simmer over medium-low heat for 10 minutes, then add the coconut milk and season with rice wine, curry powder, salt and pepper to taste. Continue to simmer for 20 minutes or until the flavors combine. Using an immersion blender or a blender, purée the soup mixture until smooth.

To serve, transfer the soup into the soup bowls and garnish with a spoonful of crème fraiche, pumpkin seeds and a drizzle of truffle oil.

_____

This recipe is from Chef Bob Simontacchi of the Gravenstein Grill in Sebastopol.

Butternut Squash Soup

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 stick (4 ounces) butter

1 butternut squash (3 to 3 ½ pounds), peeled and chopped

1 small onion, chopped

1 small fennel bulb, chopped

4 cups apple juice (fresh cider if possible)

— water (as necessary)

2 cups heavy cream

1 small sprig of rosemary

½ teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg

½ teaspoon allspice, ground

2 ounces maple syrup

1 tablespoon hot sauce (vinegar based, such as Crystal Hot Sauce)

— salt and pepper to taste

For garnish:

— lemon

— crème fraiche

— croutons

— chives

Melt butter in large pot or Dutch oven on the stove at medium heat, then add onions & fennel and sauté until soft and translucent (5 to 7 minutes)

Add butternut squash, then add apple juice. If necessary, add water to cover squash by about 1 inch.

Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until squash is soft and starting to fall apart (approximately 30 minutes)

Season with salt and pepper.

Add heavy cream, all herbs & spices, hot sauce, and maple syrup, then simmer for an additional 15 minutes.

Purée in the pot with an immersion blender or use a regular blender to blend in batches until smooth. Taste, and add salt and pepper as needed.

Ladle into bowls and garnish with lemon, crème fraiche, croutons and chives.

_____

The following recipe is from Liza Hinman of The Spinster Sisters. Due to the complexity of mole sauce, she recommends buying a ready-made sauce. The Mole Diaz Bros sauce is available at Casa de Mole, Agave Healdsburg and El Farolito, all of Healdsburg; or El Gallo Negro, and Tu Mole Madre in Windsor. You can also find mole paste at some Hispanic markets and add stock to it.

This dish is vegan. All of the components can be made ahead and re-heated for eating.

Robin’s Koginut Squash with Mole Negro

Makes 4 to 6 servings as a first course or side, 2 to 4 as an entrée

1 whole Robin’s Koginut squash (or butternut)

½ cup Beluga lentils

1 tablepoon sherry vinegar

½ cup store-bought mole negro

1 bunch cilantro

¼ cup habanero pickled onions (see recipe below)

¼ cup pumpkin seeds

1/4 cup pumpkinseed oil or extra virgin olive oil

Begin by peeling the squash, then cut in half and scoop out seeds in center. Retain seeds to toast.

To toast the seeds: rinse as much of the squash flesh off of the seeds, and then dry well.

Toss in 3 tablespoons vegetable or pumpkin seed oil and spread into a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake at 375 until golden brown (around 15 to 25 minutes), stirring occasionally. Remove, sprinkle with salt and set aside.

Cut the squash into ¾- inch strips and then either steam in a vegetable steamer for 8 minutes, or roast in an oven with a little salt, pepper and oil for 20 minutes, or until tender.

While the squash is cooking, bring 2 cups of lightly salted water to a boil, and add the lentils. Cook until just tender (about 8 minutes), and strain. Spread onto a plate, sprinkle with the sherry vinegar and a pinch of salt if needed, lightly toss and set aside.

Once the squash is cooked, hold in a warm spot and place the mole into a small pot and warm gently. Add a few tablespoons of water to help loosen if too thick to spread onto the plate.

Pick the 6 to 8 sprigs cilantro off of the stems for garnish.

To plate: On a large platter, or individual plates, spread the mole across the center. Place the squash slices across the mole, and scatter over them the lentils, pickled habanero onions, toasted pumpkin seeds and cilantro sprigs. Finish with a pinch of sea salt and drizzle with pumpkinseed oil or extra virgin olive oil and serve.

Serving suggestions: Serve with fresh corn tortillas and steamed brown rice for an entree.

Pickled Habanero Onions

2 red onions, thinly julienned

1/3 cup fresh lemon juice

1/3 cup fresh orange juice

1/3 cup fresh grapefruit juice

2 teaspoons salt

2 bay leaves

2 tablespoons black peppercorn

2 fresh habanero peppers, cut in half

Place the juices into a pot with the salt, bay leaves and peppercorns. Place the julienned onion into a heat proof bowl.

Pour the hot juice and spices over the onions and allow to cool to room temperature. Place in the fridge for minimum 2 hours before using. Discard spices before serving. Will keep in fridge for up to 2 weeks.

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The following recipe is from Daniel Kedan of Backyard Restaurant, who with his wife and farmer Brett Hardesty, grows 898 squash at Davis Family Vineyards in Healdsburg.

898 Squash with Bacon Maple Glaze

Makes 4 to 8 servings as side

— For squash

4 898 squash, cut in half lengthwise and seeded (or butternut, red kuri, acorn)

2 tablespoons olive oil

— Salt and pepper

1 lemon, zested

— For glaze:

1/2 pound bacon, diced

1 cup raw hazelnuts, chopped

1 tablespoon butter

1 bunch sage, chopped

1 lemon, juiced

2/3 cup maple syrup

For squash: Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Drizzle the olive oil on the flesh of the squash. Season with salt, pepper and lemon zest. Roast in a 350 degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes. (The squash should be very soft to the touch.) Remove the squash from the oven.

For glaze: In a pan on medium, heat and render the bacon until it just starts to get crispy.

Drain 90 percent of the fat. Add the hazelnuts and toast until they start to turn golden, about 3 minutes, stirring to keep the cooking even.

Add the butter to the pan. Once it has started to brown and the aroma is nutty, turn off the heat. Add the sage and stir, then quickly add the lemon juice. Add the maple syrup and stir.

To plate: Spread the glaze equally over the warm squash and serve. If serving later, let the squash cool with the glaze and reheat in a 325 degree oven for 5 to 10 minutes.

hhhhhh

The following recipe is from “Season: A Year of Wine Country Food, Farming, Family and Friends” by Justin Wangler and Tracey Shepos Cenami of Jackson Family Wines.

“Kabocha is one of the best winter squashes to cook at home because it’s not overly sweet,” the authors write. “This is one of our fall buffet stars.”

Roasted Kabocha Squash with Pepitas & Rosemary Brown Butter

Makes 8 servings

1 kabocha squash (2 to 3 pounds)

2 tablespoons rice oil or other neutral-flavored oil]

— Kosher salt

4 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter

1 heaping tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary

1/4 cup pepitas (pumpkin seeds), toasted

1/4 cup pomegranate seeds

1/2 teaspoon ground Espelette pepper

— Maldon sea salt, for finishing

1/4 cup loosely packed fresh mint leaves, torn

To roast the squash: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Cut the squash in half through the stem end and scoop out and discard the seeds and fibers.

Coat a sheet pan with 1 tablespoon oil and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon kosher salt. place the squash halves, cut side down, on the pan.

Coat the peel with the remaining 1 tablespoon oil and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon kosher salt.

Bake the squash for 25 to 30 minutes, until knife- tender.

Remove from oven and transfer to a cutting board. Cut each squash half lengthwise into quarters.

Sear the squash: Put 2 tablespoons butter and the squash wedges in a large sauté pan.

Season the squash with an additional 2 teaspoons kosher salt. Place over medium heat and cook for 4 to 6 minutes, until the underside is golden brown.

Flip the squash pieces and cook for 4 minutes longer, until the second side is golden. Transfer the squash to a platter.

Brown the butter: Discard any butter in the pan, wipe out the pan with a paper towel, place the pan over medium heat, and immediately add the remaining 2 tablespoons butter and the rosemary.

Cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until the butter is brown and fragrant and rosemary is crispy.

To serve: Pour the rosemary brown butter over the squash, and garnish with the pepitas and pomegranate seeds. Sprinkle with the Espelette pepper and Maldon salt, top with the mint, and serve immediately.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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