Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Celebrating the Last of Our Long-Storing Kabocha Squash

by Pete Zuck, R&D, Vegetable Product Manager

» Watch Pete's New Video-Recipe for Miso-Glazed Kabocha Squash

Just as we reach the last few weeks of another Maine winter, our once seemingly boundless supplies of storage crops are dwindling. For those of us whose storage conditions are less than ideal, some of the fussier items are in serious jeopardy by now. The basement is a few degrees too warm? Perhaps your potatoes have begun to sprout. The fridge’s “crisper” is a bit too dry? Maybe the carrots have lost their crunch. As for those storage onions, you never know what you might find when you slice them open.

Winter Sweet Kabocha Squash
Johnny's-Bred 'Winter Sweet' Kabocha Squash
One crop that is easy for almost anyone to store successfully, however, is winter squash. A good butternut or kabocha will stay delicious well into the spring, stored at what most Mainers consider “room temperature” for this time of year – about 60ºF/16ºC. In fact, some of the longer-storing varieties are just beginning to reach peak flavor as the dark nadir of the winter solstice sets in — refer to our Winter Squash Curing & Storage Chart for specifics.

Because it’s so reliable, we Mainers tend to put up a lot of squash each fall. While it’s great to have a dependable, highly nutritious food source on hand, by March it gets to be a little redundant on the menu. Winter staples like mashed butternut and squash soup use up a lot of material, but they can get tiresome. With each passing potluck, our friends grow more indifferent to our offerings.

Pete Zuck, Johnny's R&D Vegetable Product Manager
The key, I’ve found, is to break away from our traditional vision of squash. Let’s face it; many Americans still equate squash with baby food — maybe they’ve only ever had it one way — mashed. And even then, it is often not the most flavorful type or variety, or given the simple enhancements it needs to really impress. We tend to stick with butternut as our go-to storage squash. While there is nothing wrong with this type (and a well-bred butternut can be delightful on its own — our award-winning Butterscotch, for instance), most butternuts are better suited as ingredients in a broader recipe, whereas other types are actually much better as stand-alone dishes.

Glaze Ingredients
A couple of years ago, I really discovered kabocha squash. It helped that I was working for a company known for producing some of the best-eating varieties, with vast fields of them just a short walk from the break room. I credit our company founder, Rob Johnston, with turning me on to kabocha. When I started working here, Rob would often sit down to lunch with a big wedge of Winter Sweet or another of his elegant creations, adorned with nothing but salt, pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil. As I adopted this practice myself, I quickly began to appreciate how different and wonderful kabocha squash is. The dry texture ate more like a baked potato than like the mealy mush I was used to. There were subtle flavors in the background that reminded me of maple syrup and spiced rum. It was sweeter than butternut, and I didn’t even have to peel the skin off!

Miso-glazed Kabocha Squash
Quick, Easy, Nutritious, DELICIOUS!
This time of year, I cook a big kabocha most Sunday nights, then pop it in the fridge and reheat it each morning for a simple squash-and-eggs breakfast. I just follow Rob’s simple recipe (although I prefer butter to olive oil), and I find it’s great fuel for the morning routine. It’s a sort of sweet twist on hash browns, with perhaps a healthier starch profile, too.

It is not surprising that kabocha is the squash-of-record in Japan. The Japanese market is very particular about eating quality in vegetables. The sweet corn must be tender and highly sweet, with just a hint of a floral accent. The tomatoes, preferably pink, must be low in acid and high in umami, a flavor concept embodying “pleasant savoriness,” first defined in Japan over a century ago. It is a gourmand culture, and their chosen winter squash is kabocha. (To learn why some winter squash and edible pumpkins taste so much better than others, read Eating Quality in Winter Squashes, with an explanation by Dr. J. Brent Loy, a classical plant breeder with whom Rob Johnston has collaborated for over three decades.)

In searching for ways to experience squash the way they do in Japan, I’ve been trying a few variations on miso-glazed kabocha. The concept is simple and the recipe adjustable, and it highlights everything that’s so great about this squash. It incorporates the core flavors of sweet, sour, salty — and probably umami (but I’m not qualified to say for sure). And, it’s the perfect way to share and celebrate the last of last year’s winter squash, as we plan for the upcoming planting season. I hope you enjoy it enough to try it six different ways.


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