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12.24.08

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Phaedra

Good Gourd Almighty! Sweet pies, savory pies, enchilada sauce—the uses of winter squash are virtually endless.

Pieface

The many uses of the wondrous winter squash

By Ari LeVaux


Winter squash is a well-named fruit. It keeps all season long and makes great cold-weather comfort food. The warm, buttery flavor adds to almost any dish, sweet or savory.

While summer squash varieties are harvested when the fruits are tender virgins, winter squash are harvested when the fruits are mature, with fertilized seeds, a hard, shiny shell and dense, glowing flesh that casts much-needed light in these cold dark days.

Thanks to its high carbohydrate content, winter squash can serve as the base for a meal. Like rice, bread or pasta, it can be the substance to which the saucier elements are applied.  Or it can be the sauce itself, either as a bit player in, say, a coconut curry, or as the body of the sauce—like the sauce in the enchilada recipe I'll give you in a moment.

Squash can be made into soup, spread, dip or salad dressing; it can be baked into a cake or baked with custard inside. It can be incorporated into almost anything, or it can be left entirely alone. A baked delicata on the half shell, left to cool on the stovetop, needs nothing at all, not even a utensil. Hold it like a piece of pizza and eat it, skin and all. It could be your entire meal.

For a side dish, cut a winter squash into inch-chunks and drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper. Bake at 350 degrees, stirring occasionally, until the chunks are crispy on the outside but still creamy on the inside. Eat these chunks with whatever's for dinner. The next day, toss them in your lunchbox. Toss them in your salad. Toss them into a hot pan with bacon grease, fresh garlic, pre-browned meat and serve over rice with soy sauce. Or brown them in olive oil, push them to the side of the pan and scramble in a few eggs.

And then there's pumpkin pie, which can be made from any winter squash.

Years ago some friends and I had a pumpkin pie business. We were always testing different recipes, always had tons of half-eaten pies lying around. That's when I proved, scientifically, that it's possible to live for days, happily, on nothing but pumpkin pie. We made pies from blue hubbard, kuri, buttercup, pumpkin, kabocha, acorn, delicata and sweet meat squashes, and we had a different recipe for each variety—starchy kabochas require more eggs and cream, for example, while the sweet and buttery delicatas need less. Sometimes we used classic pumpkin pie spices, like mace, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice or cloves. Sometimes we mixed in chocolate chunks.

Here is a basic squash pie recipe, which you can use as a template, and doctor to your own specifications:

Cut squash in half, scoop out seeds and guts (saving seeds for roasting with salt, pepper and olive oil). Place the halves face down on a baking tray with a quarter-inch of water on the bottom, and bake at 375 degrees until a fork easily pierces the flesh, about 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool.

For each pie, scoop out two cups of squash flesh and combine with a half-cup of cream and three or four eggs. Sweeten to taste—the average recipe calls for about a cup of sugar per pie; maple syrup works too. Add the pie spices of your choice, up to a half-teaspoon per spice. Add nuts or chocolate (or whatever else you think will taste good). Taste often to make sure it's right. 

If you want a savory pie, skip the sweetener. Brown your meats, cook and season greens, potatoes or whatever other items you want. Add a layer of squash, then the filling, maybe some cheese. Cover with more squash filling and bake.

Sweet or savory, bake your pie about an hour at 300 degrees, until the filling is firm.

And here's that recipe for green chicken enchiladas with squash sauce:

 

Bake a squash as for pie. Sauté one shallot, minced, and three cloves garlic, chopped, in olive oil. Add a cup of squash, season with a teaspoon each of nutmeg and paprika, and salt and pepper to taste. Stir often. Whenever it starts to stick, deglaze with Madeira or sherry. After 15 minutes on medium heat, add a cup of chicken stock. Cook until thick. Turn off the heat and let it cool, then purée in a food processor.

In another pan, brown a half-pound of chicken meat. Add a quarter-cup pine nuts, four chopped kale leaves and two chopped oven-roasted green chiles. Season with salt and pepper.

Roll or fold the chicken mixture into corn tortillas and pack into a baking pan. Pour the sauce over them, and bake for 15 minutes at 350 degrees.


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