Secrets of winter squash revealed

As a die-hard South Georgia boy, my familiarity with squash has been rather limited, if not downright ignorant.

We grew yellow crooknecks and zucchinis in the summer garden, but until the advent of the squash casserole — which practically drowned the vegetable with cheddar cheese and canned soup — I wasn’t all that big on the seedy, springy-textured vegetable.

Winter squash?

Sure, I’d spoon into a butternut-squash soup if it were put in front of me. But acorns, delicatas, all the gnarly gourdlike things that arrive in fall and last through winter struck me more as table decorations than delicacies. I’d rather put them in a cornucopia than in a fritter or stew.

But I’ve had my eye on “Crop Stories,” a series of slender, single-ingredient volumes published by the Athens Farmers Market. (The first little book was devoted to blueberries and came out last summer.) When the second issue of “Crop Stories” arrived in the mail — a lively compendium of winter-squash recipes for the likes of cocktails, pickles and waffles — I felt perhaps that I should show these castoffs a little love.

In turn, I got an education. “Crop Stories” editor Andre Gallant’s opening essay informed me that pumpkins and gourds technically qualify as winter squash. It also introduced me to some varieties from my own backyard that I didn’t even know about: North Georgia Candy Roasters; Cushaw Squash; and the swamp-loving, tree-crawling Florida natives known as Seminole Pumpkins.

So with a basketful of sweet-as-sweet-potato butternuts, yellow-and-orange-splashed acorns, striped delicatas and what not, I began to roast, puree and preserve.

Atlanta chef Ian Winslade of Murphy’s Restaurant and Vinings newcomer Paces & Vine sent me a recipe for butternut soup, sweetened with lemon-and-ginger syrup; topped with tofu cream and sprinkled with toasted pumpkin seeds. I was smitten. (I love his roasting method, too: Split squash down the middle. Scoop out seeds and pulp. Season with salt and white pepper. Dot with butter. Put halves back together. Wrap in foil like a baked potato. And roast for about 45 minutes at 350.)

I couldn’t find the aforementioned Seminole Pumpkins, but I did discover adorable little Sugar Pie Pumpkins, and proceeded to pickle them and stir into something called Seminole Pumpkin Fry Bread: beignet-like bites perked up with spice and pureed pumpkin; fried and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Can you say “addictive”? (The dough keeps well in the refrigerator, too, making the bread perfect for frying in small batches for morning coffee or late-night snacks.)

Now I’m contemplating my stash of acorns, delicatas and kabochas and thinking how, with a little help from “Crop Stories,” I can turn them into spice cake … butternut gratin … pork tacos with squash slaw … heck, maybe even a cocktail.

One thing for sure: I’ll never dismiss these bumpy, odd-shaped heirloom squash again. They may look frightening and bitter. But inside so many of their kind is a sweet-nectared fruit just waiting to be tapped.

Recipes

A game of squash

Here are four recipes showcasing the versatility of winter squash — which can be scalloped like potatoes, stewed in tagines, fried up like beignets and pickled like cucumbers.

Butternut Squash Gratin

This elegantly layered gratin, a riff on traditional potatoes gratin, is by Athens chef Mimi Maumus of Home.made. If you prefer to line the pan with uniform half moons of squash (and it does make for a prettier dish, which can be sliced into wedges like lasagna once it cools), use the long necks of three butternuts and save the bulbous bottom parts for another use.

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

4 small sprigs of sage

1 cinnamon stick

2 tablespoons celery leaves, roughly chopped

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 medium-size squash, peeled, seeded and sliced into 1/4-inch half moons

1 cup thinly sliced yellow onion

freshly ground pepper

1 cup Grana Padano cheese, grated

1 cup chopped pecans

sea salt and black pepper, for seasoning

In a small pot or saucepan, place heavy cream, sage, cinnamon stick and celery leaves. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Stir gently, cover and allow to steep for 15 to 20 minutes. Strain through a fine mesh sieve. Taste and season with salt.

Grease a 9-inch casserole with butter. Line the bottom of the pan with a double layer of squash and a few slices of onion. Line the sides of the pan with a layer of squash. Season with salt and pepper. Pour 1/2 cup of the cream over the squash and onions. Sprinkle with two tablespoons of Grana Padano. Repeat until all the squash is used; the top layer should not have onions but should have seasoning, cream and cheese. Sprinkle with pecans.

Cover with foil and bake at 325 for an hour. Check for doneness by inserting a toothpick into the center of the gratin. (There should be no resistance. If necessary, cover again with foil and bake for an additional 20 minutes, or until done.) Remove foil and bake for 20 minutes uncovered. Serves: 6

— Adapted from “Crop Stories, Issue No. 2: Winter Squash,” published by Athens Farmers Market ($9.99).

Per serving: 454 calories (percent of calories from fat, 84), 9 grams protein, 11 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams fiber, 44 grams fat (20 grams saturated), 107 milligrams cholesterol, 144 milligrams sodium.

Seminole Pumpkin Fry Bread

Though this recipe calls for Seminole Pumpkins, a variety native to Florida, you may use any kind of small, sweet pie pumpkin or winter squash. I used “Sugar Pie” pumpkin. Butternut squash would be delicious, too. According to “Crop Stories” editor André Gallant, the bread is “an old Native American recipe that can be attributed to many different tribes.”

2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling out dough

4 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 cup Seminole Pumpkin puree (may use other kinds of sweet pumpkin or winter squash such as butternut)

1 tablespoon water or milk, as needed to moisten dough

1 cup refined coconut oil or sunflower oil for frying (may use canola or vegetable oil or shortening)

Powdered sugar for dusting

In a large bowl, mix flour, baking powder, salt, nutmeg and cinnamon. Add pumpkin puree and stir to combine. If necessary, add water or milk, a tablespoon at a time, until a smooth dough is formed.

Place dough on a floured surface and shape into a large rectangle about 1/2-inch thick, adding flour as needed to prevent sticking. Cut into small triangles.

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Test a small piece of dough by placing in oil; you want the dough to sizzle and brown almost immediately. When oil is ready, gently place several triangles in the skillet, being careful not to overcrowd. Fry for about 30 seconds or until golden brown. Using tongs, flip and fry other side until golden brown. Drain on paper towels and sprinkle with powdered sugar. (You may also place about 1/2 cup powdered sugar in a brown paper bag, place bread in the bag while still warm, and shake until covered.) Serves: 6 to 8

— Adapted from “Crop Stories, Issue No. 2: Winter Squash,” published by Athens Farmers Market ($9.99).

Per serving, based on 6: 483 calories (percent of calories from fat, 67), 5 grams protein, 36 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams fiber, 37 grams fat (33 grams saturated), no cholesterol, 506 milligrams sodium.

Pickled Pumpkin

For this recipe, I used small “Sugar Pie” pumpkins. You could substitute any sweet winter squash or pumpkin of choice. (I think butternuts would be divine.) These pickles are great with roasted meats and vegetables, pots of greens and beans, or on salads. You could even tuck them into spring rolls or sushi rolls.

2 cups rice vinegar

3/4 cup distilled white vinegar (may use cider vinegar)

3/4 cup mirin

5 fresh Thai chilis, split in half lengthwise

1 small piece of ginger, unpeeled, thinly sliced

6 garlic cloves

10 white peppercorns (optional)

4 star anise

1 1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup kosher salt

3 pounds pumpkin, cut into thin slices or chunks (may use any kind of small pumpkin or winter squash)

Combine 2 cups water, rice vinegar, distilled white vinegar, mirin, chilis, ginger, garlic, peppercorns (if using), star anise, granulated sugar and salt in a large non-reactive pot. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. When the sugar is dissolved, add the pumpkin and cook gently, stirring and checking frequently, until it is just slightly tender, about 3 minutes.

Ladle the pumpkin and the liquid into sterilized glass jars. Process in a water bath for 10 minutes. (You may also store the pickles in the refrigerator, where they will keep for months.) Makes: 3-4 pints

— Adapted from “Cooking in the Moment” by Andrea Reusing (Clarkson Potter, $35).

Per 2-tablespoon serving: 39 calories (percent of calories from fat, 2), trace protein, 9 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, trace fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 472 milligrams sodium. 39 calories (percent of calories from fat, 2), trace protein, 9 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, trace fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 472 milligrams sodium.

Winter Squash Tagine

This colorful, aromatic dish is from chef Peter Dale of The National in Athens; it’s a wonderful way to use a variety of winter squashes. Serve with rice or couscous.

1/4 cup olive oil

2 large onions, diced

5 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced

1 carrot, diced

1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced

1/2 jalapeno, seeded and minced

2 pounds winter squash (such as delicata, butternut, acorn, etc.), cubed 3/4 inch

1 pound eggplant, peeled and diced 3/4 inch

1/2 tablespoon cumin

1/2 tablespoon coriander

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1 tablespoon paprika

1/4 teaspoon chili flakes

pinch of saffron

1/2 cup white wine

1 1/2 pounds chopped tomatoes, seeds and all

salt and pepper

1/2 cup chopped cilantro

1/2 cup feta cheese, crumbled

In a large saute pan, warm olive oil over medium heat and saute onions, garlic, carrot, ginger and jalapeno until tender, about 8 minutes. Add squash, eggplant, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, paprika, chili flakes and saffron. Saute for about 5 minutes. Deglaze the pan with wine; then add tomatoes. Cook on low heat, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching, until the mixture is thick and jammy and the eggplant is falling apart, about 30-40 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Just before serving, top with cilantro and feta. Serves: 6-8

— Adapted from “Crop Stories, Issue No. 2: Winter Squash,” published by Athens Farmers Market ($9.99).

Per serving, based on 6: 216 calories (percent of calories from fat, 43), 5 grams protein, 28 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams fiber, 11 grams fat (2 grams saturated), 6 milligrams cholesterol, 94 milligrams sodium.

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