Jack o’ All Squashes
When is a pumpkin a pumpkin and when is it not? Or are they the same? Pim wondered aloud here and as she prepared a beautiful French fall soup with potimarron. Curiosity got the better of me (as it often does) as it seems that there are so many new varieties at the markets these days.
Part of the confusion can be cleared up with the definition, pumpkin really only means "large hard-skinned squash." Beyond this the meaning is mostly arrived at by cultural usage of the term. What is considered a pumpkin changes as you travel around the globe and also regionally. Here in the U.S. pumpkin typically refers to the rounded orange squash of any size that is carved for Halloween or pureed for Thanksgiving pie. Bottom line…pumpkins are a type of winter squash.
I then began to wonder about the difference between summer and winter squashes. After looking through a few gardening books, I learned that summer squashes are eaten when the fruit is immature and the skin tender. On the other hand, winter squashes are allowed to mature. Usually these varieties are baked, as their flesh is typically hard and mild in flavor.
Pumpkins are in the cucurbita family which includes squash and cucumbers. While there are many species of squash for this investigation we’ll need to just leave that to the gardeners to sort out. As a general rule the home chef can usually swap one for the other in recipes. The chestnut-flavored potimarron Pim uses in her soup originated in China and is now widely used throughout France. It’s also known elsewhere as the Hokkaido squash. Its skin is soft enough that it is doesn’t need to be peeled.
Calabaza or Cuban Squash, Caribbean pumpkin or West Indian Pumpkin is raised in warmer climates and can be found year round. It can be found freshly chopped and packaged in Latin markets as it is very difficult to chop. It is a central part of the of the Latin American diet.
Another commonly found squash variety is Kabocha, this is the Japanese word for squash which falls into the buttercup squash category. Many recipes I found while researching, call for taking the typically dark green, five pound-ish squash and removing the top to reveal the bright orange flesh, cleaning out the seeds and stuffing and baking it with a mix of ground meat, onions, seasonings and dressing with grated cheese. Often in Japanese restaurants you’ll find this as tempura.
Living solo, I like the Delicata or sweet potato squash. This type runs about 3 inches wide and 8 inches long with thin green stripes running lengthwise. It’s size is perfect for one and ideal for baking or stuffing.
Back to the pumpkin. Although native to the Americas, it has traveled around the world to become a staple in dishes as diverse as Asian porridge, East Indian curries, and Italian ravioli. Today it is grown everywhere but Antartica. Early settlers of New England made pumpkin pie by filling a hollowed shell with milk, honey, and spices, and baking until done. Ninety-nine per cent of pumpkins are used for decoration. Which means that most of us reach for the can of pumpkin puree for our pies, breads and soups. The largest processor of pumpkins is Libby. And while there is an unsubstantiated Internet rumour that canned pumpkin puree is really butternut squash according to the company their canned puree is made from Dickinson pumpkin, a sugar-pie variety.
One pound of winter squash yields about 2 cups of cooked, mashed squash.
CURRIED PUMPKIN SOUP
4 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 clove garlic, diced
2 cups pumpkin puree
4 cups chicken stock
Pinch of sugar or a splash of orange or apple juice
1 tablespoon curry paste (or less if you don’t like spicy!)
or 1/3 teaspoon curry powder (or more to taste)
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 cups light cream
1/3 cup toasted coconut (optional; garnish)
PREHEAT oven to 450F. Put pumpkin purée into ovenproof dish, and heat until edges brown, about 15 minutes.
MELT butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add onion, cover and cook until soft and translucent, about 8 minutes. Add garlic and curry paste and cook 1 or 2 minutes, until fragrant.
ADD pumpkin and stock. Stir well to mix. Add bay leaf, sugar, curry powder, nutmeg, salt and pepper. BRING to a boil, reduce heat and simmer 30 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary.
REMOVE from heat and stir in cream. Return to medium-low heat until steaming hot but not boiling. Serve in warm bowls, sprinkled with toasted coconut if desired.