Local summer squash is reaching the end of its season, and now local crops of winter squash are beginning to show up in our farmers’ markets and supermarkets.
Hooray, for the tastiest, locally grown, organic winter squashes entering their peak season, which runs from October to January. But to enjoy peak flavor, you need to know about ripening winter squash.
First, let’s look at the history of this wonderful vegetable. Squashes of all types were domesticated by indigenous people of Central America about 10,000 years ago — about 4,000 years before corn or beans, the other two members of the trio of foods known as the Three Sisters, and which together form a complete protein — as good as meat, but without the meat.
They were independently domesticated later by the indigenous tribes of eastern North America, and it was the Narragansett tribe of what is now Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts who called it askutasquash, which English settlers shortened to squash.
Thin-skinned, short-lived summer squashes are botanically Cucurbito pepo while winter squash with its hard rinds and fully developed seeds are Cucurbito maxima. Same genus, different species.
Butternut squash has long been considered the ultimate winter squash for nutrition, texture and flavor, but there’s a new champion in town on all three quality points: kabocha squash. Besides locally grown organic kabochas at the farmers’ markets, you’ll find them at Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Oliver’s.
Kabochas have twice the beta-carotene (which our body transforms into vitamin A) of butternut, rich stores of vitamin C and some B vitamins, plus more dietary fiber, fewer calories per cup, and a probiotic effect on the intestinal microbiome that controls our immune system. The two or three pounds of gut bacteria that we host internally, and that we have discovered are crucial for our health, love nothing more than a meal of nutrient-rich kabocha squash. When our gut bacteria are healthy and happy, so are we.
Our new champion has a velvety texture despite its plenitude of dietary fiber, so you can steam it, then mash it and add it to soups and stews to thicken them.
Kabocha’s flavor is rich and sweet, but reaches perfection only after it has ripened. So here’s the skinny on that: when kabocha is harvested, it’s not completely ripe. It needs a period of rest for its rind to harden, its stem to turn hard and corky, the seeds to fully ripen within it, and the flesh to sweeten up to its full potential.
When you bring a kabocha home, store it in a warm place — about 77 or 78 degrees — for a couple of weeks. This starts the enzymatic process of converting the starches in the flesh to sugar. Then store it in a cool place — about 50 degrees — for a month or two. Actually, it will continue to sweeten up into February.
By “store it,” I mean setting it stem side up on a pad of newspapers out of direct sunlight in a place where cool air can freely circulate around it. The just-harvested, bland-tasting fresh kabocha will become smooth, sweet, and succulent. Its flesh will be a deep reddish-orange. If you bring one home in October, it’ll be perfect from Thanksgiving right through the holidays.
Kabocha squash is a staple in many Asian cuisines. One of its common names is Japanese Pumpkin. The Japanese batter slices for tempura. Thai chefs roast it, bake it, and especially use it to add substance to curries.