As much as I enjoy leaf peeping, these days I have my sights set closer to the ground for my fill of autumnal colors. When I need a change of scenery from my work-from-home walls, I head to local farm stands where winter squash is on majestic display. Sometimes I just look and pretend that I am window shopping or in a museum, like in the good old days. But when it’s time to cook, that eye candy keeps on giving; the pigmented flesh is like looking at the sun or a field of wildflowers.

Cucurbita is the name of this massive plant family that includes cucumbers, melons, zucchini and the gorgeous works of art familiarly known as pumpkins. Unlike younger and more tender summer squash, winter squash is mature with fully developed seeds and a protective outer rind designed for long-term storage (ergo, the name “winter”). The storage squash universe is vast, one that spans the color spectrum and includes every imaginable shape and size, from the petite Sweet Dumpling to the giant Blue Hubbard. Because there is so much to learn, we are sharing this report in two parts. What follows is a closer look — inside and out — of eight locally grown varieties, with tasting notes. In Sunday’s Food section, we’ll put our new knowledge to work, with a handful of recipes and even more cooking ideas. Who else is ready to get lost in squash?

Squash Fairytale

Fairytale squash.

FAIRYTALE

Aliases:

Musquee de Provence, Muscade de Provence.

Physique:

Like other varieties of cheese pumpkin, the Fairytale has the stature and girth of a wheel of cheese. Weighing up to 15 pounds, this hefty specimen comes in a shade of soft orange with swirls of brown (and maybe even a little green), resembling autumn leaves. No matter the paint swatch, the Fairytale is uniquely curvaceous, with its signature deeply ridged curves. (Imagine a Bundt cake in squash form.)

Armor:

For a squash of this size (the one in the photo weighs 9 pounds), the skin is surprisingly thin and easy to pierce with a sharp knife. Those ridged curves also work as a guide, as if you were cutting slices of cake.

Inside takeaways:

  • Cantaloupe-colored flesh that, when roasted, deepens into a shade of copper, resembling apple butter.
  • Cooked flesh is fairly wet and needs draining, delivering medium starch, minimal string and marginally sweet notes.
  • I see the Fairytale as a savory partner, served as part of a stew curry or a pot of saucy beans, or served in wedges with an herb butter, alongside roast chicken, duck or a steaming mound of rice, bulgur wheat or farro.
  • If you're into stuffed pumpkin, this would be a good one to use.
Squash Red Kuri

Red Kuri squash.

RED KURI

Aliases:

Orange Hokkaido, Uchiki Kuri.

Physique:

Tear drop or pear shape in a stunning shade of orange soda. A real looker. Weight range is three to seven pounds, on the leaner (and manageable) side of the C. maxima family.

Armor:

Relatively smooth with faint lines, as if it were lightly etched. Skin is thin and easy to wield with a sharp knife.

Inside takeaways:

  • Mango-colored flesh that is slightly stringy and less dense than other related varieties; in fact, cut halves are more like shallow teacups than deep bowls.
  • Roasted, the flesh is delicately sweet and maybe even a little nutty. It is somewhat starchy and yet also damp; you may notice some accumulating water. (Drain well as needed.)
  • Good for pureeing and using in soup, risotto, baked goods, pancakes.
Squash Speckled Hound

Speckled Hound squash.

SPECKLED HOUND

Physique:

Round with squared-off edges and a flat top. Comes dressed in gray-green with splashes of gray-blue or even a soft orange-pink. Weighs between three and six pounds. On first glance, you may mistake it for a green kabocha, which has similar coloring.

Armor:

Roll up your sleeves and make sure your knife is sharp; the Speckled Hound has a stubborn skin that needs coaxing. See box for ideas on cutting tough-skinned varieties.

Inside takeaways:

  • Vibrant yellow flesh that maintains its sunny disposition when cooked.
  • The flesh is moist (versus wet) with a low-starch texture reminiscent of apple sauce.
  • A Speckled Hound puree is both creamy and eye catching, so it is a natural for soup. You could have fun with brightly colored garnishes, from herb oils and edible flowers to cherry tomatoes, which will sparkle like jewels. Its silky texture lends itself to baked goods, too.
Squash Australian Butter

Australian Butter squash.

AUSTRALIAN BUTTER

Physique:

Pale orange with splashes of sunset pink, like red lentils or a salmon fillet. Its domelike shape is reminiscent of a panettone, the Italian sweet bread. Weighs between five and 15 pounds.

Armor:

Its slightly mottled skin requires brute force and a sharp blade.

Inside takeaways:

  • Do you like sweet potatoes? Then you will like the AB. Lower in water content than some of the other varieties in this roundup, the AB flesh is dense and dry, yet creamy, and looks and eats very much like the copper-skinned sweet potato seen in grocery stores. The flavor is earthy and decidedly less sweet, but the custardlike consistency invites the addition of sweetener, be it maple, molasses, honey or a sprinkling of brown sugar.

  • The smooth texture is what I love about the AB and why it’s my new favorite. I want to pan-fry it in Indian spices and dip it into tempura batter just as much as I want to bake it in a loaf pan for weekend breakfast. The possibilities feel endless.
Squash Neck Pumpkin

The Neck Pumpkin, also known as the Pennsylvania Dutch Crookneck Squash, looks like an oversized butternut squash.

NECK PUMPKIN

Alias:

Pennsylvania Dutch Crookneck squash.

Physique:

At first glance, the neck pumpkin looks like an oversized butternut squash. After all, they both wear a thin khaki-hued skin and the root end is practically identical. But the long neck that often curls into an edible boa or something akin to a French horn is what sets the neck pumpkin apart. (To be clear, they are both part of the C. moschata family and therefore related.) Average weight is eight pounds, which means a 15-pounder is not out of the question.

Armor:

The thin skin means you can cut your way through a neck pumpkin with a sharp knife. Because the neck end is so different from the bulblike base, start by cutting the squash into two pieces, separating the bulb from the neck. They will be very uneven in size, but that’s ok. Work with one piece at a time, or store one for later.

Inside takeaways:

  • Similar to that of a butternut squash, the flesh is a vibrant mix of orange and yellow, like wildflowers. As it cooks, the color deepens into something more golden. Speaking of gold, honey is what you'll taste. Mash some and you'll notice how much it resembles a potato, with medium starch and slight moisture.
  • Like a butternut, the neck pumpkin is extremely versatile. I had my first encounter with a neck pumpkin in Lancaster last fall, and I fell hard instantly. The one caveat is its size, so be prepared to cook it all at once and freeze, split one with a neighbor, or use the other half within a week’s time.
Squash marina di chioggia

Marina di Chioggia, an Italian heirloom squash, required a hatchet to cut into wedges.

XL PUMPKIN ADVENTURES

This time last year, I had a few firsts in our new town: Hammond’s Pretzels right out of the oven, neck pumpkin and an heirloom squash called the North Georgia Candy Roaster. It’s one of the 50-plus varieties of edible pumpkins that the Erb family grows at Brook Lawn Farm in Neffsville, and one that I will cook every fall as long as I live in Lancaster. Length is a signature trait of the Candy Roaster; the one on my dining room table splayed like a harbor seal is about 20 inches long.

The skin, in a gorgeous shade of sunset pink and a gray-blue tip, is surprisingly thin, similar to that of a neck pumpkin or butternut squash. You can easily cut in half and fashion them into boats, perfect for filling.

And yes, the name delivers; this squash is as candy-ish as it gets.

For this year’s oversized squash adventure, I chose the Marina di Chioggia, a 25-pound whopper with a skin that calls for a hatchet. Part of me wanted to hit pause and instead study its extraordinary network of nobules, seemingly chiseled by a sculptor. It’s as if Mother Nature ordered a custom paint job for the exterior of this Italian heirloom, a moody blend of green, black and blue. It was difficult to avert my eyes, but I was determined to do as the Venetians, which is to cut the yellow-fleshed squash into wedges, scent it with olive oil and rosemary and slap it onto the grill like a T-bone steak. Forty minutes later, the wedges were charred and ugly but a mouthful of delicious – smoky, creamy and layered with flavor. Next time, assuming I can find a smaller pumpkin, we will serve it with a salsa verde or chimichurri as a bright complement to the dense flesh — just like a steak.


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