Thursday, December 25, 2008

Winter Squash

I am doing a lot of tidying of the restaurant web site. Here's an article that I just found laying around in the depths of the site. I wrote this originally for the Winchester Star some years ago and have updated it for the blog. I figured it wasn't doing a lot of good just laying around in cyberspace and it seems a timely enough topic. We're using a lot of winter squash at the restaurant right now.

Many people know winter squash, the hard-fleshed, hard-skinned squashes that store well over the winter, from sweet preparations, if at all. However, there is a whole savory world of uses for winter squash. You’ll find some of the winter squash recipes and ideas from the restaurant below.

All winter squashes in the US belong to the gourd family (Cucurbita) that includes summer squashes, melons, and cucumbers. We generally see Butternut, Acorn, Hubbard, Long Island Cheese, Fairy Tale, and various Pumpkins in the markets in Winchester. From time to time, we also see Kabocha, Delicata, and Cushaw squashes and Turban Gourds in the market.

From a cooking perspective, these squashes are interchangeable (as are sweet potatoes) and are excellent in soups, baked, roasted, scalloped, in gratins, mashed, and sautéed.

These squashes get their deep orange and red colors from carotenes (notably beta carotene), which are precursors of Vitamin A, thus winter squashes are good sources of Vitamin A and some also have a fair amount of Vitamin C as well. Winter squash are generally good sources of antioxidants. They also happen to taste great too.

There are two main preparation techniques for these squash. Either you split them, roast them, and scoop out the flesh to get a purée, or you peel and slice the squash raw. In either case, you must have a very sharp and heavy knife to work with the hard-skinned and hard-fleshed winter squashes.

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup with Country Ham and Leeks

Here's soup that I have been making for more than 20 years. If you don't want the ham or don't have any, omit it. The real trick here is in making sure that you caramelize the squash very well. You don't have to caramelize it at all, but that is what makes my soup so much better than the average soup.

1 medium butternut squash, 3-5 pounds
extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper
1/4 pound country ham
1 large leek
1 sprig of fresh thyme

Peel, seed, and chop the butternut squash into cubes. Make sure that the cubes are all roughly the same size so that the squash will roast uniformly. Place the squash in a roasting pan and coat with olive oil and a little salt and pepper. Toss well to cover thoroughly and place in a hot oven to roast. Turn every five minutes or so until all sides are well caramelized.

Meanwhile, dice the ham into small pieces and clean and chop the leek. In a sauté pan, add the ham and a little olive oil and cook the ham until it is well caramelized. Add the leeks at this point and sauté until they are soft, a minute or two. Place the ham and leeks in a soup pot. Deglaze the sauté pan with a little water to remove the caramelization on the bottom. Add the pan juices to the soup pot.

Place the caramelized squash in the soup pot and add water to cover. Add the thyme sprig. Simmer for 20 minutes and remove the thyme sprig. Place the soup in a blender and carefully blend until smooth. Thin with water or stock as needed. You can omit the ham to yield a vegetarian soup. Garnish with tiny dice of sautéed apples finished with honey, a swirl of crème fraîche or sour cream, and fresh thyme leaves.

Roasted Winter Squash and Onions

Nothing could be easier; what a simple side dish for a roasted fowl or joint of meat! I also do the same thing with summer squash as a side for fish or fowl in the summer.

1 winter squash
1 large yellow onion
2 large garlic cloves
extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper

Peel and seed the squash. Slice into uniform slices 1/8” thick. Slice the onion into similar slices. Slice the garlic into fine slices. Add all vegetables to a roasting pan and toss with olive oil, salt, and pepper to coat. Roast in a hot oven, turning occasionally until the vegetables are just soft, about 10-15 minutes.

Winter Squash Gnocchi

Gnocchi is one of those dishes that is an acid test of a chef's ability. Gnocchi takes a very light hand: not enough flour and it falls apart; too much flour and the result is gummy and leaden. This shouldn't discourage you from making gnocchi, but if you're just starting out, use (russet) potato until you get the hang of it. Potato is easier and cheaper, in case you have to toss out the result. I have a very good friend who begs me to make gnocchi for her every time she comes to the restaurant. She keeps me in practice.

1-1/2 cups squash purée
1 egg
1 to 1-1/2 cups flour

Bring a pan of salted water or stock to a simmer on the stove. Mix the squash purée and the egg. Grate a little nutmeg into the squash. Add 1/2 cup of flour and gently mix. With your hands, gently knead in another 1/2 cup of flour. Mix as little as necessary. If the dough is too sticky, gently add more flour until you have a dough that you can roll out in 3/4-inch diameter logs. Cut the logs into one-inch sections. Roll down the back of the tines of a fork to give the gnocchi little ridges. Drop the gnocchi in small batches into the simmering water or stock. Simmer until they float, about 6-8 minutes. Drain and dress with butter, with sage butter, or a wild mushroom sauce.

Note: you shouldn't need an egg for potato gnocchi. Squash is so comparatively wet that it needs the extra protein from the egg to bind it.

Roasted Winter Root Vegetables

This is a great accompaniment to any roast meat or fowl.

Cube any or all of the following vegetables, toss with olive oil, salt, pepper, and roast until just tender.

Winter squash
Sweet Potatoes
Celery Root

Mashed Winter Squash

Here's a great alternative to mashed potatoes to have in your repertoire.

Split a large squash into quarters or eighths, if really large. Scoop out all seeds and fibers. Brush with oil and place into a medium oven. Roast until the flesh is soft and readily pierced with a fork. Remove from the oven and scrape out the flesh. Put the flesh through a ricer and then add about one tablespoon of butter per cup of squash purée. Whip well with a spoon. Add nutmeg, salt, and pepper to taste. For a different taste, omit the nutmeg and add grated orange rind.

Winter Squash Ravioli with Sage Brown Butter

Here’s an elegant first course that is easy to do provided that you are adept at making pasta. Making pasta is another one of things like making gnocchi that takes a little practice, but isn't really that hard.

Roast and purée a squash as per the previous recipe. Return the purée to a saucepan and cook gently until the purée is very thick. Stir in a tablespoon or two of butter. Season as you feel inclined—I like nutmeg, thyme, or sage and salt and pepper.

Lay one sheet of very thin pasta on your cutting board. Place a meager tablespoonful of filling on the pasta in rows about three inches on center. Brush around the filling with water or egg white. Lay a second sheet over the first. Press down gently, squeezing out any air bubbles. Seal well around the filling. Using a cookie cutter or pastry wheel, cut out the ravioli. Let dry uncovered for about a half an hour.

Bring water to stock to a bare simmer. Cook the ravioli just until the center is heated, not much more than two minutes. I look for the ravioli to float.

To make sage brown butter, melt a quarter pound of butter over high heat. Finely mince 4-6 fresh sage leaves. As the butter starts to brown, squeeze in the juice of half a lemon, add the sage leaves, and stir well. Remove from the heat. Season to taste.

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