It's that time of year when the best of both worlds collide — summer and winter — so if you have a hankering for something that is as dynamic as it is good for you, look no further than your local supplier of all things squash.
Squash is something of a miracle, and I'm not talking about the sport here, although more on that in a bit. I'm talking Cucurbitaceae, the squash or cucurbit family, which includes so many unlikely cousins you can hardly think of them all at a family reunion.
If you're not a big squash fan yet (I'm hoping this column will turn you into one) you might not know the difference between winter and summer squashes. For that I'm looking to a world-renowned authority on the chemistry of food and cooking, Harold McGee, also known as the Curious Cook. After years of study at California Institute of Technology and Yale, McGee has earned well-deserved respect for his far-ranging thinking about food culminating in his classic On Food and Cooking.
"Squash," writes McGee, is actually a word from the Narragansett people, native to the area that's now Rhode Island; it means "a green thing eaten raw," which would lead us to think it referred to what are now called summer squash.
Species from the Americas, which is where squashes were first domesticated starting some 7,000 years ago, include summer and acorn squash; zucchini, pumpkin and spaghetti squash; winter squashes like butternut; the giant Hubbards as huge as beasts (a Hubbard squash can reach 300 lb./135 kg., the largest fruits of any plant); turban, banana and kabocaha; the overlooked chayote, a staple in Mexican dishes; and the cushaw squash, with its big crooked neck, popular in the Southern States.
Asian and African species include watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew; those favourites of Asian cookery, bitter gourd and bitter melon as well as winter melon; calabashes, popular in Caribbean and African cooking; and those winners of the Cucurbitaceae popularity contest in North America — cucumbers and gherkins.
Winter squashes are the hard, a-little-bit-sweet, starchy squashes that are harvested when fully mature. They keep for months, literally, even unrefrigerated, as long as you don't cut them open. The tough, dry skin of most winter squashes makes them ideal to use as containers for cooking and otherwise. But some of their skins are edible enough once you cook them — it's all a matter of taste.
If you want a tasty, satisfying, dense, nutritious food, winter squash is for you. Many are rich in starch as well as carotenoids, especially beta-carotene, the stuff that colours them a bright, orange red and has been shown to be of some good effect in treating a form of porphyria, reducing age-related macular degeneration (remember the old saying, eat your carrots to see better in the dark?) and in reducing the risk of breast cancer in pre-menopausal women.
Winter squash is also extremely versatile. The flesh is firm enough to sauté or stew in chunks. You can also chunk it up and dry roast it in a 325-degree oven with a light coating of olive oil, or wet roast it in a covered dish with a bit of broth or liquid in the bottom. Once it's cooked, you can toss it in a blender or food processor and puree it to a fine consistency to enjoy a whole other aspect of its character. It doesn't take much to season it to a gorgeous soup, hot or cold — you'll find tons of recipes online.
The other versatile dimension to winter squashes that makes them shine is their moderate sweetness. The flavour usually comes out like something close to a sweet potato or yam, which makes them ideal candidates for both sweet and savoury dishes including pies and custards, and you don't have to stick to pumpkin for the latter. If you grew up on the prairies like I did, you likely know how feast days usually included a simple-but-expected dish of roasted squash prepped with butter, salt and pepper and a generous dollop of brown sugar on top.
What have come to be known as summer squash are the moist, not-so-sweet squashes that are harvested before they are mature and keep only for a few weeks. They have pale, often spongy flesh that cooks quickly.
Pattypan squash — those small, round squashes with the scalloped edges, named for the type of pan you'd cook a patty in, that come in yellow, white and shades of cool green from dark to light — are the classic summer squash. Zucchini, cousins to the oval-shaped vegetable marrow popular in Europe, are also summer squash.
I could say the dreaded vegetable marrow — and zucchini — for how many of us have fallen prey to neighbours who, in order to get rid of them, took to midnight deliveries of oversized zucchini on doorsteps like so many unwanted babies? In The Art of Eating, M.F.K. Fisher gives us a beautiful recipe using egg yolks, lemon juice, nutmeg and Velouté sauce from an 1814 cookbook to use up "those pithy garden monsters called vegetable marrows in England."
Acorn squash also fall into the summer category, and, loosely speaking, you could toss cucumbers in there, too. Some Asian dishes call for cooked cucumbers, especially in summer when people are after a cooling food. Either way, make sure you wash your cucumbers and any squash before eating — the Canadian Food Inspection Agency just issued an alert on cukes grown in California and sold by Safeway due to a possible salmonella contamination
If you check out North Arm Farm right now, they are straddling the great summer/winter divide with a fine selection of both types of squash. If you're lucky you'll find some squash blossoms there too. Stuff them or batter them up and fry them, and save the world from more clandestine zucchini deliveries.
On the other hand, if you're up for a healthy work-out, get yourself down to Meadow Park Sport Centre in Alpine Meadows for a game of squash. This vigorous, fast-paced sport is a fun way to boost your metabolism and control your weight. It's only $10.75 for a drop-in game, another five bucks if you need to rent a racquet. You can play yourself, but if you need a partner, you'll find one at any level, from beginner to advanced, at Whistler Squash League's website, whistlersquash.com.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who prefers to eat her squash.