A world tour of sweet squashes

The beautiful displays of sweet squashes at the markets announce some of the most delightful tastes of autumn.

colored squash 88 (photo credit: )
colored squash 88
(photo credit: )
The beautiful displays of sweet squashes at the markets announce some of the most delightful tastes of autumn. Although some so-called "winter squashes" are available year round, the greatest variety of these hard-shelled squashes can be found during the fall. For those of us who were raised in North America, these squashes bring to mind memories of sugary side dishes and pies made from this family's largest member, the pumpkin. Today's chefs are coming up with many other ways to use these vegetables, inspired by the Mediterranean and Asian culinary styles, where they are enhanced with herbs, spices and savory seasonings. Tasting such dishes opened my eyes to the numerous possibilities of enjoying these vegetables. In Jerusalem, I learned from my neighbors that putting winter squash pieces in chicken soup lends a subtle sweetness to the broth. Indeed, squash finds its way into soup pots in many Mediterranean lands. French chefs prefer their squash soup silky and rich, pureeing orange squash cooked in a light broth and finishing this golden soup with luscious creme fraiche. Moroccans like squash in soups, too, often paired with chickpeas and flavored with fresh coriander. For a festive, savory-sweet holiday dish, cooks there simmer orange-fleshed squash with carrots and chickpeas in a saffron-scented meat broth, then sprinkle the vegetables with raisins, sugar and cinnamon and serve them over freshly steamed couscous. Libyans turn sweet squash into a fiery puree flavored with cumin, lemon juice, harissa (North African chile paste) and lots of raw garlic; at Sassi's, a kosher Mediterranean restaurant in Los Angeles, they make a delicious version of this appetizer. Italians use sweet orange squash as a filling for pasta. They also cook it with rice in a tasty squash risotto with broth, white wine, Parmesan cheese, a touch of butter and a hint of sage or thyme. No sugar is needed; the squash's natural sweetness and the savory seasonings harmonize wonderfully with the rice. The Japanese also use sweet squash in hearty soups, such as soy and sake-flavored oden, which includes fish cakes, tofu and white radish and is served with mustard. In A Spoonful of Ginger (Knopf, 1999), author Nina Simonds writes, "Black bean sauce goes well with all types of winter squash," and flavors her interpretation of this dish with garlic, ginger, chile flakes and soy sauce. Visiting Thai Chef McDang told me about his favorite ways to use squash, as we tasted the dishes he had taught at the California School of the Culinary Arts in Pasadena. McDang, a famous TV chef in Thailand, cooks winter squash in a "jungle curry" with ground beef, curry paste, fresh peppercorns, wild ginger and fish sauce, and finishes the dish with holy basil leaves. He adds a hint of palm sugar but emphasizes that "the dish should be quite hot." Even with these pungent flavors, the squash's sweetness comes through. Recently I tasted a superb squash dish in Pasadena, California, that originated half way around the world. Made of butternut squash wedges coated with creamy yogurt, then with a light tomato sauce, it was served at Azeen's Afghani Restaurant. The components were familiar but to my palate the combination was new; the tangy toppings beautifully complemented the sweet squash. If you see an unfamiliar winter squash at the market, don't hesitate to try it. Most squashes are interchangeable in recipes. If a particular squash doesn't give you a result that's as sweet as you'd like, you can always stir in a little honey or sugar. When I planted some squash seeds that my neighbor's father brought from Iran without knowing the name of the variety, the squash turned out as big as a watermelon and was wonderfully sweet, like butternut squash. Choose a squash that feels heavy and has no soft spots or cracks. Store whole ones in a cool, dark place; keep cut pieces wrapped in plastic in the refrigerator. If you find a squash difficult to cut, you can microwave it briefly, and then cut it in convenient pieces and continue cooking it in the microwave or oven. When the squash meat is partially or fully cooked, you can add it to the other ingredients in the dish. Simonds notes that Asians believe winter squashes tone and energize the body. Winter squash is also highly recommended by Western nutritionists as a very good source of fiber, vitamins A and C and other nutrients. It's a terrific food to add to our "delicious and healthy" lists and use often. GOLDEN SQUASH SOUP WITH HERBS Delicate accents of thyme, bay leaves and rosemary complement the natural sweet flavor of the squash in this creamy soup. Instead of enriching the soup with milk or cream, you can top each portion with a small dollop of creme fraiche or sour cream. 1 kg. butternut (dolorit) or other winter squash 2 Tbsp. olive oil, vegetable oil or butter 1 onion, chopped 13⁄4 cups vegetable or parve chicken-flavored broth 1 fresh thyme sprig 1 bay leaf 2⁄3 cup milk or soy milk or 1⁄3 to 1⁄2 cup heavy cream 2 tsp. tomato paste (optional) 1⁄2 tsp. minced fresh rosemary, plus 4 small sprigs for garnish salt and white pepper Cut squash in pieces and cut off peel. Remove any seeds or stringy flesh. Cut squash flesh in cubes; reserve. Heat oil or butter in a saucepan. Add onion and cook over medium heat for 7 minutes or until light golden. Add squash cubes, broth, thyme and bay leaf. Cover and bring to a boil. Simmer, stirring often, for 20 minutes or until squash is tender. Remove thyme sprig and bay leaf. Puree vegetables in pan of soup with a handheld blender; or puree soup in a blender and return to pan. Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring often. Add milk or 1⁄3 cup cream and bring to a simmer. Cook uncovered over low heat, stirring often, for 3 minutes or until thickened to taste; if soup is too thick, stir in water by tablespoons until it has the consistency you like. For a deeper color or a tangy flavor, stir in tomato paste, blending well. Add minced rosemary. Season to taste with salt and white pepper. Serve hot, drizzled with a little more cream, if using, and garnished with rosemary sprigs. Makes 4 servings. Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.