December 21, 2017
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The Gary Oldman of Winter Squash
KabochaSquash-Pie-3658

Why do we always lean on butternut squash and pumpkin when kabocha has a unique flavor and can hold up nicely when fried, roasted, or made into a pie?

Kabocha squash is rather plain in the looks department. No dazzling colors, no sensuous curves. No one would look twice if they passed it by in the produce department. But with deft preparation, kabocha is a character whose every presentation dazzles. A vegetable with both breadth and depth. It’s the Gary Oldman of winter squash.

Pumpkin is fairly bland, needing the boost of a grand supporting cast to shine. Butternut, though sweet, has a high water content. And the best that can be said for hubbard is that it doesn’t spoil in a hurry. But kabocha is much more complex. The flesh is both sweet and earthy. The texture is flour-y. If you didn’t know what you were eating, you’d be forgiven for thinking a sweet potato had carried out a romance with a chestnut.

Some home cooks avoid squash, intimidated by all the knifework involved in peeling and cubing. But despite the stalwart rind, there is an easy way to prepare kabocha, with limited slicing involved. Literally just a single cut. Because it contains less water than many squash, kabocha responds better to oil, especially when roasted with butter or fried as tempura. The flesh absorbs fat in a way that enriches flavors without turning greasy. So it holds up well on the grill or in the wok, in sweet baked dishes, savory curries, or even when served raw and thinly sliced, then dropped at the last possible moment into a bowl of piping-hot udon.

All squash has meso-American origins, yet most varieties grown in the U.S. have some New England pedigree.

Compared to such earnest upbringing, kabocha is a cosmopolite, having taken the long way round from South America to the grocery store. In the 16th century, Portuguese sailors brought the squash from Brazil to Nagasaki at about the same time missionaries were dazzling the locals with tempura. Because Portugal also had trading posts in Southeast Asia, the squash was introduced as Cambodia abóbora, or Cambodia pumpkin, a name that became localized and shortened in Japanese to kabocha.

In my kitchen, kabocha is a squash that gives twice. Three times if I decide to roast the seeds. The first night I split a medium squash in half laterally, roast it with butter, ginger, and honey, then serve one half as part of the meal or as a dish in itself. The next night, I peel the shell off the remaining half and puree the flesh for pumpkin pie (but you could also use it for soup or in a puree). Kabocha’s chestnut flavor really comes to the fore in this dessert, and owing to the vegetable’s natural sweetness, it requires much less help from sugar and spice as pie. Not to mention the lower water content makes for a much firmer though still flour-y filling.

In much of the English-speaking world, choosing kabocha over pumpkin would not be problematic. In Australia and New Zealand, all winter squash are called pumpkins, regardless of how orange the rind. In those places, my move to make pumpkin pie out of kabocha would get a pass. But I live in the United States, where only one squash gets to be pumpkin. Which means if I’m not about to mash up a jack-o-lantern, then it’s just not pumpkin pie.

To which I say, phooey. Because if you set aside spice, crust, whipped cream, and tradition, pumpkin pie has an awful existential problem. And the problem with pumpkin pie is pumpkin—a condition easily remedied by substituting a more flavorful squash.

Ingredients

  • 1 large kabocha (about 4 pounds)
  • 4 tablespoons butter (for a richer flavor, substitute sesame oil)
  • 4 tablespoons honey
  • 2 tablespoons chopped ginger
  • Sea salt to taste

Even for squash skeptics, this recipe has been a crowd-pleaser at holiday meals. The kabocha can be served as a dish in itself, or the halves, once cooked, can be diced and tossed with savory foods. Comfortable companions include roasted Brussels sprouts, sausage, brown rice, and walnuts. The tough rind of the kabocha softens with roasting and can be left intact when served.

  1. Preheat the oven to 400°F.
  2. Remove stem from the kabocha. Split the squash in half laterally.
  3. Remove seeds. (If desired, wash and set aside for roasting separately.)
  4. Finely chop 2 tablespoons ginger root (about the size of your thumb).
  5. Combine ginger, honey, and butter (or sesame oil) over low heat.
  6. On a greased baking sheet, place both halves of the kabocha open side up. This will allow more moisture to evaporate from the squash as it cooks.
  7. Brush both halves of the squash with honey-ginger mixture.
  8. Season with salt to taste.
  9. Place in oven and roast for 35 minutes or until tender.
Kabocha Squash Pie

Kabocha Squash Pie

10-12 servings

Ingredients

  • Crust
  • 2½ cups flour
  • 2 sticks butter (frozen)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ¼ cup ice water or milk
  • Filling
  • 2½ cups honey-roasted kabocha
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons molasses
  • 3 whole eggs
  • 1 cup half-and-half
  • ¼ teaspoon allspice
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Honey-roasted kabocha gets an encore presentation in the following recipe. Kabocha is much sweeter than pumpkin, and because the leftovers have already been sweetened and flavored with honey and ginger, this recipe uses less sugar and spice than most pumpkin pie recipes.

I like a thicker crust. I want something sturdy so I can walk out the door in the morning clutching a slice without having to negotiate the use of a plate and fork as I head for the metro. The following recipe makes one 12-inch crust, plus a little extra, which can be frozen for later use. For those who prefer a thinner crust, the following recipe is sufficient for two 12-inch crusts, or one double crust, such as for apple pie. A baker friend supplied the tip to use grated frozen butter for easy mixing. Though of course, for anyone in a hurry, a store-bought crust is an easy substitute.

    Crust

  1. Mix flour and salt in a large mixing bowl.
  2. Grate butter into flour and mix well.
  3. Add water or milk a little at a time, turning and tossing dough as needed until dough is tacky but not sticky.
  4. Remove dough to floured surface and roll flat.
  5. Place in a 9.5-inch pie pan, trim extra, and refrigerate. If desired, freeze trimmed extra crust for future pies.

Filling

  1. Preheat oven to 400°F.
  2. Remove roast kabocha flesh from rind. Discard rind.
  3. In a food processor or blender, combine squash, eggs, half and half, and vanilla extract until smooth.
  4. Add sugar, molasses, and spices, and blend again until smooth.
  5. Pour mixture into prepared pie crust.
  6. Optional: For a more polished look, glaze edge of crust with egg wash.
  7. Place pie in oven. Bake for 10 minutes at 400°F. Then lower temperature to 350°F and bake 50 minutes.
  8. Remove pie from oven and set aside to cool, at least one hour.
  9. Slice and serve with whipped cream.

Cirrus Wood

Premium aged, naturally aromatic, produced in a facility that also uses soy, nuts, dairy, and gluten: these are a few of the words that might be used to describe Cirrus Wood. Or they may just be something he read off a bag of basmati rice he had in the pantry because he didn’t know what to write here. Cirrus is a freelance writer and photographer living in Berkeley, California. His writing has appeared in McSweeneys, to do lists, old year books, and the missed connection section of Craigslist, where he writes personally addressed messages to the drivers who cut him off in traffic.

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