The English word ‘squash"’comes from ‘askutasquash’ (‘green thing eaten raw’) in the Narragansett language. Cucurbita, the squash family of vegetables, originated in the New World and was among the first domesticated plants, cultivated over 10,000 years ago. Cucurbita variations spread throughout the Americas before the arrival of Columbus and through the rest of the world afterward.
Cucurbita are “a promiscuous lot and interbreed shamelessly, creating a bewildering menagerie of sizes, shapes and forms,”* so it was easy for prehistoric, historic and current agriculturalists to select what they liked best. Natural diversity and human selection resulted in many, many variations of summer squash (like zucchini, crookneck and patty pan), winter squash (including pumpkin, butternut, acorn, kabocha), and outliers like spaghetti squash and gourds. Look at a seed catalog; new incarnations appear every year.
Summer squash are immature fruits; they are white fleshed and tender, and the plants grow as bushes. Harvest begins early and continues through the summer. Winter squash are the mature vining versions, and a single harvest happens in the fall. They develop thick rinds, giving them good keeping qualities, and they can be stored at room temperature through the winter. Most have been selected for firm, orange, sweet flesh.
Squash are easy to grow. This year I’m growing an obscene amount of winter squash. Cherokee Candy Roasters are as thick and long as a wrestler’s arm. They are part of the Cherokee indigenous heritage and are on the Slow Food Ark of Taste.** I'm growing Grey Kuri squash, a version of kabocha. The story goes that kabocha was developed in Cambodia and traded to Japan in 1541, or maybe 1863, by Portuguese sailors. The actual history is murky. Everywhere squash has traveled it was adopted, changed, and embraced, and then the history of its arrival was forgotten.
I’m also growing a crazy lot of butternut squash. In 1944 Charles Leggett, a small farmer in Stow, Massachusetts, discovered a cross between Hubbard and Gooseneck squash. He recognized the value of this new varietal, with its creamy, bright orange, sweet flesh, small seed cavity and wonderful nutty flavor, and named it butternut. Butternuts can be stored for up to five months, and actually get sweeter during the first two months. I really love this variety and it’s a good thing too, because my husband went nuts planting them. Let’s just say we’re planning on giving butternuts as presents for Christmas.
This edition of The Soup Diaries features winter squash in two unusual and delicious variations.
Sicilian Pumpkin Soup plays off sweet vegetable and sour citrus flavors with notes of spicy peppers and earthy herbs. 6 servings
Dice 2 cups mixed-color carrots and 3 cups red onion. Sauté these in a large heavy pan with a good glug of olive oil till lightly browned. Add 4 cups of winter squash, peeled and cubed, and sauté for a few more minutes. Then add 3 cups water (plus 1 tablespoon miso) or chicken stock, 2 teaspoons lemon zest, and 3 tablespoons lemon juice. Add 1 teaspoon each of minced oregano and rosemary, a pinch each of sage and hot chili flakes. Cover and simmer until the squash is tender but still holds its shape. Add 1 cup of milk, salt and pepper to taste. Serve sprinkled with a finely chopped mixture of parsley and lemon zest. Make this a full meal by adding a spoonful each of cooked pasta and white beans.
Wow, eight spices, counting the onions and garlic! (The best local source for bulk spices is Prescott Natural Grocers.) 6 servings
Rinse 1-½ cups of lentils and put them on to simmer with 5 cups of water. Cover and gently cook till tender. Drain and stir in a tablespoon of olive oil and a bit of salt.
Then coarsely chop 2 medium onions, a couple of small chilies (to taste), 3 inches of a ginger root, and 2 pounds of fresh ripe tomatoes. In a large pot heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil and lightly sauté 1 tablespoon whole cumin seed. Measure out 1/3 cup unsweetened dried coconut and peel 9 cloves of garlic. Add all these ingredients to a blender and buzz till smooth. Pour this sauce back into the large pot with 2 cups of water and salt/pepper to taste. Bring to a slow simmer, then cut the winter squash into 5 cups of cubes. Add this to the simmering tomato sauce along with 2 teaspoons each of ground turmeric and curry powder, and 1-½ tablespoons ground coriander. Cover and continue to simmer until the squash is tender. Add more water if necessary. Then add a can of coconut milk, mix well, heat and taste. Add salt, pepper, more chili to taste. Serve with a dollop of lentils and a sprinkling of chopped cilantro.
This soup plays the sweet vegetables against the sour lemon and kicks it up with red and black pepper and earthy herb notes. 6 servings
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups diced red, yellow, orange and white carrots
3 cups diced red onion
4 cups 2-inch cubes peeled winter squash (prefer butternut)
3 cups water mixed with 1 tablespoon of miso or chicken stock
2 teaspoons lemon zest
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon each minced oregano and rosemary
Pinch of sage
1/4 teaspoon hot red-pepper flakes, to taste
1 cup milk (dairy or not)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
3 tablespoons minced parsley mixed with 1 tablespoon grated lemon zest, for garnish
Heat olive oil in a large pot over moderate heat. Add carrots and onions and sauté till lightly browned. Add squash, water or chicken stock, lemon rind, lemon juice, oregano, rosemary, sage and pepper flakes. Cover and simmer till squash is tender, 20 minutes or so. Add milk. Heat and season to taste with salt and pepper. Soup should be peppery. Serve garnished with parsley-lemon zest mixture.
To make this into a complete meal add to the soup cooked short pasta, like penne or fusilli, and cooked white beans
Contains generous doses of eight spices (counting onions and garlic)! That’s a flavor punch of health-giving phytochemicals. The best local source of these spices is Prescott Natural Grocers.
1 1/2 cups red, white or green lentils, rinsed
4 tablespoons olive or other vegetable oil, divided
1 tablespoon cumin seed
2 medium onions, coarsely chopped
1-3 small chilies, to taste
A 3-inch piece of fresh ginger, finely sliced
9 garlic cloves peeled
3 cups ground tomatoes or 2 pounds fresh ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped
½ cup unsweetened dried coconut
5 cups winter squash, seeded, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
2 teaspoons curry powder
1 ½ tablespoons ground coriander
1 can (13.5 oz) coconut milk (not low-fat)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 bunch fresh cilantro, sliced thinly
Rinse the lentils well. Place them and 5 cups of water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, cover the pan and simmer for 30-40 minutes or till tender. Add more water if necessary. Drain and rinse. Add 1 tablespoon of oil and ½ teaspoon of salt. Set aside.
In a 1-gallon pot heat the remaining 3 tablespoons of oil. Add the cumin. Stir constantly and toast till browned. Add onions, chilies, ginger and garlic. Sauté till lightly browned. Transfer this mixture to a blender with the tomatoes and dried coconut and puree till smooth, then return the mixture to the pan. Add 2 cups of water and the squash cubes, turmeric, curry powder, and coriander. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer, cover, and cook for 20 minutes or till squash is tender. Add the can of coconut milk, salt and pepper. Mix well. Heat through and taste for seasoning.
Serve with a dollop of lentils and garnish with fresh cilantro.
Chef Molly Beverly is Prescott's leading creative food activist and teacher. Photos by Gary Beverly.