Sick of the same old squashes? Bored of the brainless old ways to cook them, too? (i.e. Roast until tender. Puree into soup.) I think this happens just about every January. It’s the winter’s-here, we’ve-done-our-soup-thing, home-cook-head-scratching blues. The holidays are over, and reality has sunk back in; it’s back to the daily grind. And what? You’re coming down with a flu, too? Yep, you’ve got it bad. Better get some antioxidants in the system, STAT. Luckily, eating squashes (not just in soups) are pretty good at doing that.
Gourds, pumpkins, fruits, vegetables; brown, green, yellow, vibrant red. A squash may be just another squash, until you’ve tried a kabocha squash. Also known as Japanese pumpkin, these are New World fruits that have made it big in a land afar. And that’s something to say for themselves.
Kabocha (not to be confused with kombucha, or kabuki theater) is a singular member of the squash family, not just for its exotic name. That’s not to say that it isn’t similar to them, either; for me, it’s just familiar enough yet distinctive in certain traits that it’s a stand-out squash. Mostly, for its texture. Kabocha squash is mealy and velvety-smooth when cooked. It isn’t all spongey and it’s definitely not stringy. It reminds me of the innards of a cooked bean. This firmness lends itself well to stir-fries in its adopted home cuisine, Japanese (where it’s commonly braised with dashi). The green skins are often kept on in these types of applications, too, they lend more vitamins and turn papery-thin. Though for caution’s sake — I’m not native to cooking these things after all — I did trim off the gnarliest, knobbiest bits, perhaps just creating unnecessary work.
Kabocha squash have a naturally sweet, nutty flavor. But I thought I’d take it up another notch here by braising it in apple cider. And softening golden raisins into its sauce. Caramelized onions, please step forward, and let’s have a (small) clove of another aromatic, garlic, too. Do I sense something Sicilian going on here, with the golden raisins and garlic? Sure, why not? And take a couple pinches of red pepper flakes for this, too. Salt, pepper, olive oil, and some butter to finish.
And there we have it: the full roster for an unexpectedly flavorful winter dish. Who said January vegetable dishes had to be dull? All told, you can probably follow this recipe with any type of firm, orange-fleshed squash, to satisfactory results. But if you’re looking for distractions and deviations, rest assured that kabocha are here — in specialty farmers’ markets and Asian groceries — to help us through the long winter haul.
Apple Cider-Braised Kabocha Squash with Golden Raisins and Onion
(makes 3-4 small servings)
1 kabocha squash (roughly 1 lb), seeds removed and sliced into thin wedges or crescents
1 medium onion, sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
about 1/2 cup golden raisins
2-3 cups apple cider
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
pinch red chili flakes (optional)
salt and pepper to taste
Once you’ve sliced and trimmed squash pieces, removing any knobs or brown patches on its skin if you prefer, add to a hot pan with about 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Let cook 1-2 minutes on each side, seasoning with salt and pepper, until a slight crust develops. Transfer and set aside.
In the same pan, heat remaining olive oil and sliced onions over a very low flame. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally for 10-15 minutes, until onions are translucent and golden brown (caramelized). Add the garlic, raisins and optional chili flakes and return squash to the pan. Add the apple cider, cover and simmer about 10 minutes, or until squash is just tender and liquid is almost cooked off. Taste for seasoning. Add butter, toss once more, and serve immediately.
(for 3-4 side servings)
1 kabocha squash (at $2.50/lb): $2.50
1 onion: $0.20
1/2 cup golden raisins: $0.35
2 1/2 cups apple cider: $1.25
1 clove garlic, olive oil, butter, salt, pepper, optional chili: $0.40
Four brownie points: Like most orange-fleshed winter squash, kabocha are rich in Vitamins A and C, but for all their sugars, they’re relatively low in calories. The golden raisins are more healthful than simply sprinkling them with sugar, and fat content is pretty minimal here, too.
Seven maple leaves: Most specialty produce farms that have all sorts of winter squash, and kabocha is becoming a more and more common one, it seems. Should be easy to find this time of year, just like the apple cider. Preserved fruits (canned, jammed or dried versions, like golden raisins) are the natural substitute for fresh types when they’re out of season. However, I have yet to find locally-produced golden raisins.