Friday, October 16, 2009

Kabocha: Japanese Winter Squash

Kabocha Japanese winter squash arrives in produce markets in autumn along with the more familiar orange pumpkins, butternut, and acorn squash. In Japan, Kabocha is the generic term for any pumpkin or squash; in North America it refers to a specific winter squash which has a thick dark green skin streaked with celadon markings and usually weighs about two or three pounds, though larger specimens are not unusual. The deep orange highly nutritious flesh is much beloved by aficionados for its complex, sweet chestnut flavor and creamy texture.

Evidence of squash cultivation dates back over four thousand years to Mesoamerica; recently anthropologists have found domesticated squash seeds in Peru which are ten thousand years old, making squash one of the earliest foods grown by humans. It is thought by historians that Kabocha (curcubita maxima) was introduced to Japan by Portuguese sailors in the 16th century. Kabocha requires a growing season of at least 100 days; in the U.S. it is cultivated in California, Florida, and the southwest. Most of the California crop is exported to Japan where it is a popular staple featured in soups, stews, tempura, and desserts.

After harvesting, Kabocha improves in flavor and sweetness as its natural sugars continue to develop. Stored in a cool place (not the fridge) it will keep well for six weeks or longer. Choose squash which has a hard shell free of soft spots and is heavy for its size. Kabocha may be used in any dish which calls for pumpkin or winter squash. If you're fond of butternut and acorn squash, Kabocha will be a seasonal favorite in your kitchen. See basic cooking method below.

Cooking Kabocha:

Cutting up winter squash with a thick tough shell takes strength and caution. I've found that it's much easier to simply bake or steam the squash whole. After cooking, it takes no effort to cut it up and remove the seeds. Here's the easy steaming method:

Scrub squash well. Choose a pot with a tight fitting lid and place a metal steamer basket inside. Add enough water to almost reach the steamer basket, put squash in basket and cover. Bring water to a boil. Lower heat and steam gently until tender; test with a toothpick. Cooking time will vary, but about 30 minutes should be enough for a 2- 3 pound squash.

Turn off heat and allow squash to cool enough to handle. Place on cutting board, slice off the top of the squash and remove seeds and fibers. If organic, there's no need to remove the skin. Traditional Japanese cooks like to remove most of the skin but leave some strips on for aesthetic appeal. Slice squash and serve with a little tamari sauce and your favorite steamed leafy greens. Cooked squash keeps well in the fridge and makes great portable snacks for school or work. A recipe for winter squash soup will be posted at a later date.