Fall – the season of pumpkins and squashes. Many people are turned off from buying whole squashes because they either don’t know what to do with them, or think it’s too much trouble. Unfortunately they then end up buying pre-cut slices of pumpkin wrapped in plastic, or not at all. Whole squashes are much cheaper and a lot fresher. It is not as daunting a task as it may seem, and the end result is well worth it.
The Japanese Kabocha squash is like a Buttercup squash and is sometimes labeled as so. At the perfect ripeness, it is sweet, starchy, with deep golden flesh – great on its own, in soups or stews, fried up as tempura, or beaten up as a puree. I can eat about half a medium-sized squash in one sitting, or finish one in two days. I have even gotten carotenosis from eating too much once. Not an expert, just an aficionado. The following is my protocol – you can enjoy Kabocha in less than 35-40 minutes.
Step 1: Selection
Choose a squash with dark, speckled rind that is dull looking. Avoid pretty and shiny – you want a “rustic” look. Don’t worry about slight imperfections or little orange/tan colored patches on the rind. Whatever size you pick, the squash should feel heavier than it looks. If the underside of the squash has a lightly colored ring surrounding the large dot in the middle, it is supposedly a good squash. (An old Japanese man told me this at an Asian market once, while he was watching me pick a squash.) Overall, I have found little statistical evidence supporting (or rejecting) this claim.
Step 2: Preparation
Because the rind will not be removed, wash the squash well with a large brush. With a very sharp, serrated knife, make a longitudinal section through the middle of the squash. Take out the seeds and the soft fibres in the cavity. (With a tool if you prefer. I just use my bare hands.) Save those seeds! (See Step 5)
Step 3: Cook
At this point, you have several options: you could put the squash on a baking sheet and bake it at about 350F, or you can steam it. I prefer steaming because it doesn’t dry out the squash as much. Seasoning is not required.
A squash that is about 1 foot in diameter usually takes 20 minutes to steam. Anything larger will take 30 minutes or more. Regardless, it is done when you can take a chopstick and pierce through it as depicted. The rind should be soft (there may also be some cracks on it). You should feel a slight resistance as you poke through the flesh, but not too much else the flesh will still be crunchy.
Step 4: Devour
Removing squash from heat. It should cut through very easily, like a dense cake. Sometimes I drizzle a little soy sauce on top, but I usually eat it as is. The rind is soft and edible and quite yummy as it has a bit of a chew to it. If you need the squash for other recipes it can now be very easily skinned (good luck trying to skin it before cooking). Good tasting squashes are the older ones so they are starchy and very sweet – a bit reminiscent of a hard-boiled egg yolk. (A less mature squash will contain more moisture, might be “stringy”, and is less sweet, sometimes even pretty flavorless. Then you’ll know you have failed Step 1 of this protocol.)
Step 5: The Seeds
Another reason why you should buy your squash whole: Pumpkin seeds are delicious. And good for you. After removing them from the squash, wash them for a few minutes in a mixture a bit of water and cornstarch (I find this de-slimes them pretty well). Rinse off with water, and pat dry with paper towels. Place them on a baking sheet or large colander, and dry at room temperature for about 24 hours or until the shells are no longer soft. Good squashes come with large, meaty seeds that are a dull orange color, as depicted. These don’t even have to be roasted after they are dried, they can be easily opened and are great raw. If you want them roasted, place dried seeds on a baking sheet and bake at about 275F. Watch carefully and turn often to avoid burning.
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