Jane Says: When It Comes to Winter Squash, the Possibilities Are Endless

Lively colors, sweet flesh—there's a lot to love about winter squash.

Fun shapes, vibrant colors, amazing flavor: What's not to like about winter squash? (Photo: Henry Donald/Getty Images)
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

“I bought a bonbon squash and don’t have a clue what to do with it. I know it’s really sweet, but I don’t want to make a dessert.” —Erica Lyne

“I have a [red] kuri squash that I would love a fun recipe for!” —Kim Ward

I begin to see winter squashes at farmers markets in September, but I must admit I snub them until now, much like I do sunflowers in June: It’s not time yet. But the days have grown shorter, the air, crisper, and that has sparked my interest—and my appetite. Two relatively new varieties, bonbon and red kuri, have become more widely available, and if the only winter squashes you’re familiar with are acorn and butternut, you are in for a treat.

Even though bonbon and red kuri are different in flavor, they are unintimidating in size—one squash feeds two people nicely—and easy to handle in the kitchen. They are also great keepers; left on their own at cool room temperature, they will easily last for a month or so, until you get around to dealing with them. Just remember to dust.

The cultivar known as bonbon has a very hard dark-green rind, which is mottled and striped with silver. Weighing in at about four pounds, this squash is squat and blocky; in other words, look no further for a great ornamental doorstop. It has a good amount of rich-looking orange flesh and, when cooked, has a creamy, nonfibrous texture and deep, sweet flavor, hence its name.

MORE: Meatless on Mondays: Roasted Winter Squash, Pear and Leek Soup

Lately, I’ve been particularly taken with red kuri, which is a flamboyant reddish orange in color. It, too, runs about four pounds, and boasts an alluring teardrop or pear shape that begs you to pick it up, cradle it for a moment, and then take it home. The cultivar was developed in Japan from the renowned American hubbard squashes; other monikers for red kuri are baby red hubbard and orange hokkaido.

Kuri is the Japanese word for “chestnut,” and this squash is indeed chestnutty in flavor, mellow and not as full-on sweet as the bonbon. Steamed or simmered in a little water until firm-tender, it adds great texture to stir-fries or soups.

The path of least resistance when cooking a bonbon or red kuri is to simply cut it in half horizontally (careful!), scrape out the seeds and any fibrous bits, and place the halves, cut side down, on a rimmed baking sheet (line with parchment paper for ease of cleanup). Add some water to the pan and bake in a preheated 350°F oven for about 45 minutes, until the squash is tender when pierced with a fork.

After baking, you can enjoy them as is or stuff the squash halves with the filling of your choice—a mixture of garlicky sautéed kale and pearl couscous (I like Maftoul brand), say, or sautéed mushrooms and barley. Or, you can scrape the flesh from the softened rind and mash or purée it. If you are feeling more energetic, cut the (uncooked) squash halves into wedges, then break those down into roughly one-inch chunks. I find it easier to lop off the rind on each piece with my knife than attempt to peel the squash when whole. Toss the squash chunks with olive oil or virgin coconut oil, salt, and pepper, then roast at 375°F until lightly browned on the outside and tender within. Toss with a little sautéed garlic and/or finely chopped fresh ginger, or scatter with grated Parmgiano-Reggiano and run under the broiler for a minute or so. The other night, I added some leftover cooked squash to sautéed greens and peppers and served the whole business over what I call a swing-season polenta.

Both the bonbon and red kuri have enough character to stand up to assertive flavors. Because bonbon is so sweet, it’s especially wonderful when set off by something salty and savory—bacon or pancetta, fried until crisp, or juicy broiled sausages.

If pork (or meat, in general) isn’t for you, then go with a generous dollop of miso butter: Simply stir together two tablespoons of softened unsalted butter and about three tablespoons of white miso. A topping of frizzled leeks or shallots will give a simple mash a little meaty savor; shatteringly crisp fried sage leaves add freshness and crunch.

One last thing: Not only are bonbon, red kuri, and other winter squashes beautiful to behold, great keepers, and versatile in the kitchen, they are a good source of fiber and vitamins A, C, and some of the B’s. They also contain more than twice the potassium that potatoes do. In other words, what’s not to love?

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