If you live in the northern hemisphere, it’s hard to escape pumpkins and various hard fall/winter squashes these days. They’re displayed by the front doors of grocery stores and end-caps in the produce section. Farmers are bringing them to our weekly markets and there are better and bigger selections at Asian grocers. Halloween-carved pumpkins and related holiday decor are front and center in store ads and people’s lawns. Food magazines are loaded with photos and recipes for squash-centric dishes for Thanksgiving celebrations. It's a food that screams autumn in color and evokes the coziness of the cooler weather ahead.
In Vietnamese, a generic term for squash is bi and one with red/orange/yellow flesh (e.g., pumpkin, kabocha and butternut) is bi do. We bought a pumpkin to carve for Halloween a couple of weeks ago but instead of thinking about cutting into it for decoration, I pondered hard squash and pumpkin recipes.
No, I’m not saying I cook with pumpkins raised for carving. They don’t taste good. We mistakenly bought a wedge of Cinderella pumpkin from a Mexican market last month and it looked gorgeous in the oven but tasted blah on the plate. At the store, I recognized it in its cut form as a decorative pumpkin but since it was sold under the auspices of being good for cooking, I tried it out. Don’t do it. It’s not worth it.
For cooking, I like kabocha (can’t lose with this Asian favorite), butternut (sweet, creamy orange flesh), kuri (has a chestnut-like texture and flavor), and banana (firm flesh, conveniently sold in sections at supermarkets). I’ve been meaning to try baby cooking pumpkins as they’d probably work well in recipes.
To prep fall and winter’s bounty of hard squash, I reach for a cleaver, vegetable peeler, and grapefruit knife. The cleaver is great for hacking into a big hard squash; if it’s an extra heavy one, use a rubber mallet to help get the blade through. The peeler is good for removing the tough skin of butternut squash. A grapefruit knife’s curved blade is handy for scraping out seeds and stringy fibers lingering in the center cavity; if you don’t have a grapefruit knife, use a spoon.
Several ways to cook up these orangey beauties and their parts:
Fried Squash Blossoms are enjoyed at the Viet table as much as anywhere else. If you grow any kind of squash, you’ll have blossoms to pick and eat. Pumpkin and other hard squashes tend to have larger flowers than summer squash like zucchini. But you can treat them similarly, or select relatively small ones for this recipe. Large squash blossoms are great and easy to stuff and steam, an approach that I’ve seen in older Vietnamese cookbooks. Deep-frying is so darn nice though.
Roasted squash with soy sauce is combination that I gleaned from a friend in high school. I went over to her house one day and her mom was eating half a table queen squash that had been roasted with a drizzle of soy sauce. Her mom said it was easy, nutritious and satisfying for a woman like her who was going through menopause. Lots of takeaways in that experience and since I’m not yet in that stage in life, I’ll keep that tip in my back pocket while I simply enjoy my roasted squash. Here’s an example of how to roast the squash and enjoy it with a Japanese vegan soy concentrate (soy sauce that you doctor up to be extra delicious).
Pumpkin and coconut milk are a match made in heaven. Instead of regular or sweet potato, I cut up butternut or banana squash into thumbnail size cubes and drop them into a simmering pot of coconut-milk laden Thai curry; try it in place of potato in the Thai yellow curry with beef. The result is a great flavor and color contrast. If you have Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, the winter squash simmered in coconut milk recipe on page 176 is terrific. The vegan dish combines peanuts with banana squash and sweet potato in a creamy sauce.
Pumpkin, lime leaf, and coconut soup (at the top of the post) plays off the idea of combining pumpkin and coconut milk. The recipe was something I came up with for my husband’s aunt who was basically on her deathbed and couldn’t eat solid food. She lived for two more years after I made the soup for one of the last Thanksgiving dinners with her. The recipe is easy and you can zip things up with chile oil, if you like.
Roasted kabocha and vegetable dumplings is a terrific way to use leftover roasted winter squash. It’s savory-sweet and loaded with color and texture. I made it in response to a few so-so renditions of pumpkin dumplings I had at Asian restaurants. As shown in the above photo, this vegan recipe can be cooked in many ways.
So what are your pumpkin tips and tricks for the season?