October, Crisp Air and Squashes Galore
Pumpkins, squashes and gourds; you are seeing them at the doorway of every grocery store in town. Little tiny ones, giant ones, bumpy ones, long ones and fat ones: Are they all edible, do you just decorate with them, or do you carve them for Halloween?
With names like Carnival, Long Island Cheese, Turban and Scalopini, it's hard to tell if you should eat it, decorate with it or put it on a cracker. We tasted nine of them for you so you don't bring home a bag full of inedible gourds and a jack-o'-lantern.
So what's the difference between squash, pumpkins and gourds? Basically, the answer lies in the stem. There are the hard, woody stems, the soft, spongy or corky stems and finally the deeply ridged stems. They are all from the cucurbita genetic family, but the different subgroups are what delineate a squash, gourd and pumpkin. All pumpkins and squashes are edible, but gourds are the inedible fruit of various plants. There are a very few Asian gourds that are edible, but none grown in America. For a full biology lesson check out About.com.
All our squashes were bought at Central Market, they were all cut with the skin on and roasted in a foil pan at 375 degrees convection oven. A small amount of Himalayan salt was added to each. We tasted the Jarradale Pumpkin, Long Island Cheese Pumpkin, Carnival Squash, Little Dumpling Squash, Scalopini Squash, Turban Squash, Delicata Squash, Butternut Squash and the Acorn Squash. All had very distinct flavors, some peels were edible, and some of the seeds were better roasted than others.
We began with the Jarradale Pumpkin from Plains, Texas. It is a beautiful bluish-gray color with perfectly smooth skin. The flesh is a deep orange color, and when cut open, smells faintly like watermelon. After roasting, it is creamy, dense and rich. It has a lightly sweet taste and is good with the peel. It melts in your mouth and is almost mousse like. The seeds are perfect for roasting, and we just put salt on them. This was by far our favorite. After roasting, it becomes very sugary. It could easily be candied and would make a great dessert pumpkin.
Our second tasting was the Long Island Cheese Pumpkin. When it is cut open, it has that quintessential pumpkin smell, but it's stringy like spaghetti squash. The seeds were delicious roasted with just a little salt.
It, too, is good with the peel. It has a courser texture, and although stringy when raw, it does not shred the way spaghetti squash does when cooked. This is the one I am using in a pumpkin pie.
Next were the festive Carnival Squashes. When we cut these open, there was a raw, citrus scent. Nothing like the fall squash scent you expect from pumpkins and squash. It has a sweet, nutty taste despite its citrusy smell.
The peeling is not good to eat, and the flesh would be wonderful mashed. The Carnival is a perfect substitute for Thanksgiving sweet potatoes. Similar to the Carnival is the Little Dumpling Squash. It is creamy and buttery, and the skin is good to eat. This one could actually substitute for mashed potatoes.
Scalopini Squash has pretty fluted edges and is delicious. It tastes like a vegetable - that green, earthy, vegetable taste. One taster said it tasted and smelled like baby food peas. The peeling was good, but I think the best way to eat this one is to puree the roasted flesh and add chicken or vegetable stock and make mock pea soup.
A little crème fraiche and lardons would be a perfect fall soup.
At this point, we'd liked all the squashes and pumpkins and thought of different ways to prepare them, then we tasted the Turban Squash. It smells green, tastes green, and the peeling was inedible. One taster said it tasted like a green plantain. It is very sharp, almost sour-tasting, but it has one saving grace - its seeds.They are worth the purchase. The seeds are like small beans, and we roasted them with Himalayan salt and garam masala spice mix from Pondicheri.
They are better than crack but just as addictive. The seeds are the same size as pumpkin seeds but with lots more meat inside. I will be buying lots of Turban squashes just for the seeds.
Next we had the Delicata Squash. This squash also had a stringy texture and is not sweet. Instead it has a more savory, almost umami flavor and the peel is not good to eat. The seeds are very tiny and tedious to extract but worth it. They taste like sunflower seeds when roasted -- they're great for kids, who can extract them and then roast them. Seed roasting is a fun fall activity, and these seeds are totally worth your kids' time.
Our last two squashes are better known, Butternut and Acorn. The Butternut has very orange flesh, is sweet and nutty and is good with the peel attached. It is widely available, easy to cut and prepare. The Acorn comes in two varieties - green and gold. This is the best go-to squash; balanced sweet and savory flavor, easy to prepare and available everywhere. The green variety is much sweeter than the gold, but the gold variety is not as common as the green.
It's October and the pumpkins and squashes are rolling out the doors of every grocery store. Get out there and try some you've never have or were afraid to try - they might just surprise you. Just avoid the gourds unless you're making birdhouses.
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