Thursday, January 24, 2013

Veggie of the Month: buttercup squash

One of the problems with New Year's resolutions is that they're often too vague. "Eat healthier" is a classic example. For starters, what foods do you consider healthier? More fruits and vegetables, probably, but how many more? How many portions, and how often, and how regularly? And do those veggies and fruits have to take the place of other, less healthy foods, or can they be an addition? You could easily end up eating one salad and declaring your goal fulfilled.

Even when resolutions are specific, they often fall into the trap of being too ambitious. For instance, if eating healthier was your goal, you might decide to drop all "junk foods" from your diet—chips, cookies, and anything else that can be found in a vending machine—and snack on nothing but fresh fruits and vegetables. A vow like that is easy to make in the virtuous flush of January 1, but hard to keep as the short, dreary days of January drag on toward February.

So this year, I decided to make a nice, specific resolution that is also modest enough to be achievable. My goal this year is to try one new fruit or vegetable—just one—each month. My hope is that I'll like at least some of them enough to start eating them on a regular basis, which in turn will give me a wider array of fruit-and-veggie options to choose from when planning meals and, ultimately, help me make fruits and veggies a bigger part of my diet. But I'm not making any of that a requirement. If I try 12 new veggies and fruits and I don't end up becoming a regular consumer of any of them, that's okay; I've still tried them, and that's enough to declare my resolution a success. I'm focusing on the process, not the outcome.

My veggie of the month for January is buttercup squash—those green, oblate ones that can often be found piled together in a bin with more recognizable winter squash varieties, like butternut and acorn. We found these selling for a reasonable $1.29 a pound at the Whole Earth center, so we figured this was a good candidate for our first Veggie of the Month. Here's a picture of the fairly diminutive specimen we chose for our first foray into buttercup munching (to get an idea of scale, it's sitting next to an avocado that followed us home on the same grocery trip).

A little preliminary research indicated that this is a squash noted for its sweet flavor, so we decided to stick with a fairly simple preparation for our first taste of it and let that flavor come through in its natural state. Following the advice of food-guru Mark Bittman in How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, we simply cut the squash in half, scooped out the seeds, drizzled it with olive oil, and roasted it at 400°F. It took a long time to reach an edible level of tenderness that way, though, and we found that the edges of the squash—the parts that were in direct contact with the pan—tasted much better. They were tender and slightly browned, giving them a darker and more complex flavor, while the inner parts had a slightly chalky texture that detracted from their sweetness. Slicing the squash more thinly would probably help it cook faster and taste better all around, but given the toughness of the rind, slicing it thinly is perhaps easier said than done. It seemed like a saw would be a better tool for cutting this thing up than a knife. Maybe we would have been better off with a larger squash, so that it would have a higher flesh-to-rind ratio.

So, would I eat this veggie again? Yes, but probably not by itself. I think it would work reasonably well in any recipe that calls for "winter squash" in general; its flavor isn't all that different from butternut. However, given that it's tougher-skinned and harder to work with, I don't see that it has any particular advantage over butternut, either. (Bittman agrees, saying "The butternut is by far the most convenient as it's easily peeled and cut (no cleavers required) and its flavor and texture are wonderful.") Its best use, given its squat shape, might be for making stuffed squash; it's more compact than a butternut, and it has a nice big seed cavity to heap full of stuffing. In fact, the recipe for Baked Stuffed Squash in The Clueless Vegetarian specifically mentions "small buttercup squash" as a good choice for stuffing with Multigrain Pilaf (a medley of brown and wild rice, barley, corn, dried fruit, and nuts). Other stuffing ideas they suggest include chili, leftover macaroni and cheese, or "any cooked vegetable mixture." Maybe I'll try something along those lines with the leftover squash half that's in the fridge now.
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