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Squashed!

A squash tasting inspires exploration of that cozy seasonal favorite

By B.A. Nilsson

‘I’m having a squash tasting,” my neighbor said. “Come on over and try some varieties you’ve never tasted before.”

Six varieties were in the offing and she was right: I knew only the beige Waltham Butternut. Its preparation, like that of the others, was simple: oven-roasted, lightly salt-and-peppered.

Ah, the associations one bite of the butternut inspires! Decades of holiday meal memories live in that first bite, in its earthy sweetness and flaky texture, crying out for the reassurance of a pat of melting butter. This kind of squash is so season-specific that its positively Proustian.

Thick skin and a plump size classify it as a winter squash, as opposed to those thin-skinned summer varieties like zucchini. The genus of all squash is Cucurbita; the large winter squash generally fall into the species Cucurbita maxima, while smaller types such as butternut are C. pepo.

Just as it’s a rambunctious garden guest, squash has an all-over-the-place history. The word itself comes from the Narragansett “askutasquash,” which means that it’s green and can be eaten raw, suggesting that even Native Americans had too many zucchini on their hands.

Like so many other foodstuffs that head for our tables, our squash choices have been narrowed into a few easy-to-process types, giving us plenty of pumpkins, acorns, spaghetti and butternut, with a few pattypan incursions here and there. Opening up to the other varieties requires research, which can be done online at the Web sites of many seed suppliers, or in your lap with Amy Goldman’s beautiful book The Compleat Squash.

It’s a species-by-species tour of hundreds of heirloom varieties (thanks also to gorgeous photos by Victor Schrager) that reflect not only Goldman’s all-consuming passion for the stuff (she describes herself as a “cucurbitacean”—her own coinage—and hopes you’ll be one, too) but also her tireless work as a seed saver.

If you have the garden space, it’s worth getting some seeds in next spring—if for no other reason than to see these critters blossom and spread. The blossoms themselves can be delicious, and then, come fall, you’ll be shin-deep in a shallow of broad leaves, tangled vines and the pods themselves. (I’m convinced it was the moonlit sight of a squash garden that inspired Jack Finney to write his classic book The Bodysnatchers, better known from the “Invasion of” movies that followed.)

And there’s nothing like crunching into a young yellow squash just plucked from its stem, offering a sweetness that seems to vanish instantly as the gourd travels from garden to kitchen.

But you don’t need to grow squash yourself to appreciate its appeal. “There are many levels of appreciation,” says Goldman, who notes in her book, “they consume me and I consume them.”

Eating squash provokes enough passion to have inspired, back in February, a cook-off in Brooklyn that drew 20 home-based chefs to the V-Spot Restaurant in Park Slope, fulfilling the challenge of preparing “a tasty vegan dish using seasonal winter squash.”

The result? Such items as Winter Squash Risotto, Butternut Persimmon Pudding with maple syrup, cinnamon and ginger, Cider Glazed Squash with Greens, Squash Stuffed Mushrooms and Indian Winter Squash Halwa. An early favorite was Bruschetta de Zucca, which added ginger and shallots and sugared pecans to the squash, but Winter Squash Streusel Pie took the $200 first prize.

No doubt the most palate-pleasing way to consume squash is in such fancy preparations, but I was happy enough to meet five unfamiliar varieties in the playing- field-leveling roasting pans in which they hit the table. Sarah Johnston, who grew and prepared the gourds, is the Organic Agriculture Specialist in NYS’s Agriculture & Markets Division of Agricultural Protection and Development, and thus has a professional stake in familiarity with such produce.

We began with Galeuse d’Eysines, a C. Maxima you have to love warts and all because it’s studded with barnacle-like protrusions. Its roasted flesh is juicy and sports a slight flavor of oranges.

Rouge Vif d’Estampes comes from the same species, but it looks like a pumpkin that’s been flattened—and sports a pumpkin’s bright orange. Also known as a Cinderella pumpkin, it proved to have a light, mousselike consistency but only a modest sweetness. At a later meal, it found its way into a casserole my wife prepared, and the added sugar, seasonings and butter did nice things to the flavor.

Staying with C. max, our next candidate was a pale green Jarrahdale, named for its Australian town of likely origin. This huge gourd had a mealy texture to its meat, but mealy in an attractive way. Its delicate flavor carries a suggestion of sweetness, but it was enough to be satisfying as a stand-alone meal.

Sunshine kabocha, (also known as Johnny’s Sunshine ©. pepo), has a potato-like density, and reminded me of that tuber in flavor, too. This is an ornamental beauty that’s ornamental for a reason—it’s a lot of work to consume. There are hybrid versions, however, reputed to be far more flavorful.

The C. pepo species is also where you find the acorn group, which includes the delicious Delicata and the versatile Jack-Be-Little, not to mention the crooknecks, scallops and our old friend zucchini.

Last on the menu, hailing from C. argyrosperma, was Green-Striped Cushaw. It’s green and yellow stripes and lute-like shape is about as classically gourd-ish as they come, which is to its benefit: Its cantaloupe-colored innards have but a moderate sweetness and put me in mind of parsnips.

Dinner was accompanied by Swiss chard and cornbread, and remains one of the most unusual—and enlightening—meals I’ve attended, and (as Sarah intended) already has me looking with new interest at next year’s seed offerings for my garden.

Meanwhile, there are signs of positive change. During a recent supermarket visit, I noted some unusual additions to the usual squash array. Sweet dumpling, carnival, delicata, banana and golden acorn were among them, suggesting that the wish to diversify one’s at-home menu has extended that much further, and we can hold out hope for more heirlooms to come.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Give your Oktoberfest celebration a French twist at La Serre (14 Green St., Albany) at a food-and-wine dinner also featuring a performance by The True Tones. It’s at 7 PM Saturday (Oct. 20), and the menu includes Stuttgart cheese, smoked salmon potato pancakes, sauerbraten, apple strudel and more, each course paired with a selected wine—with a Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Noir among the varieties. The French Oktoberfest is $60 per person (tax and tip extra) and reservations are required: call 463-6056. . . . The next Farmer/Wine Evening at Marché (74 State St., Albany) features items from Denison Farm and Elihu Farm and will take place at 7 PM on Oct. 26. A champagne reception accompanies an hors d’oeuvres selection including winter squash pannacotta, shrimp rolls, lamb tartare and more; look for lamb meatballs, lamb tortellini and roasted leg of lamb among the other courses, along with minted spinach pesto, kale soup and pumpkin beignet for dessert. Wines include Marcel Deiss Pinot Blanc Bergheim, Pesquera Tinto and Talley Late Harvest Riesling. Only 50 seats are available; dinner is $85 plus tax and tip. Call 434-7410. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.


We want your feedback

Have you eaten at any recently reviewed restaurants? Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...

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What you're saying...

I very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's at Ogdens. You review described my dining experience perfectly. This wasn't the case with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree that a restaurant can have an off night so I'll give the second unit on Central Avenue a try.

Mary Kurtz
Castleton

First, yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back. Second, I haven't had a chance to visit Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant - it's not that far away. People traveled from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam. From his background, I'm sure the chef's sauce is excellent and that is the most important aspect of an Italian restaurant. Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm looking forward to trying this restaurant - I look forward to Metroland every Thursday especially for the restaurant review. And by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam location and is opening a new bistro on Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake Bistro. It should be great!

Peggy Van Deloo
Schenectady

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore
Albany

Wonderful!

Elaine Snowdon
Albany

We loved it and will definitely go back.

Rosemarie Rafferty

Absolutely excellent. The quality and the flavor far surpasses that of other Indian restaurants in the area. I was a die-hard Shalimar fan and Tandoor Palace won my heart. It blows Ghandi out of the water. FInally a decent place in Albany where you can get a good dinner for less than $10 and not have tacos. The outdoor seating is also festive.

Brady G'sell

Indian is my favorite cuisine available in the area--I loved Tandoor Palace. We all agreed that the tandoori chicken was superior to other local restaraunts, and we also tried the ka-chori based on that intriguing description-delicious.

Kizzi Casale
Albany

Your comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants being as "standardized as McDonald's" shows either that you have eaten at only a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or that you have some prejudices to work out. That the physical appearances are not what you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing on the food. And after all, that is what the main focus of the reviews should be. Not the physical appearances, which is what most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on Central Avenue, may not look the greatest, but the food is excellent there. And the menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian, chicken, and more..

Barry Uznitsky
Guilderland



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