Just weeks into the fall harvest, Jason Weiner was already tired of butternut squash.
The wintertime classic for many is a worn-out record for the Almond chef — like a song he played obsessively as a child and nostalgically revisits from time to time, but mostly avoids at all costs at his restaurant in Bridgehampton.
An abundance of local produce on the East End eases his plight, offering a variety of unusual and underutilized winter squashes, including a personal favorite for his autumn menus: kabocha. Falling somewhere between a pumpkin in looks and a sweet potato in taste, the staple of Japanese cuisine boasts a slew of health benefits, not to mention a velvety texture and sweetness that lends itself to versatility.
“As summer is winding down and there’s a little chill in the air, but you’re still yearning for summer a little bit, kabocha goes well with some of those sun-kissed cuisines — North African, Mediterranean, Tunisian, Sephardic, Sicilian things,” Weiner said. “We’re kind of straddling two seasons. I feel like the kabocha really bridges that gap. It’s like the anti-butternut squash. It sounds different, it is different and it has a bit more complexity to it.”
Described as a squash with vanilla, chestnut and even mineral undertones, kabocha is most often served roasted or pureed, but is rarely the star of any given meal. In fact, some may not even realize it’s there, according to chef Arie Pavlou. In the decades he’s used kabocha squash, he has rarely listed it as a featured ingredient — not 20 years ago, when the squash first appeared on his radar, or now, on his menus at Bistro Été in Water Mill, which he owns with his wife, Liz.
“Oh people are eating it, they just might not know they’re eating it,” he said. “It’s not the showcase of the dish. It’s something that’s holding the dish together. It’s one of those extra ingredients, so it’s not like you need to mention it on the menu, really. And it’s only available now, and not for too long. Come October, everything’s gone.”
By mid-September at Balsam Farms, the kabocha squash were curing in the fields, clipped from the vines and left to sweeten up — a critical step before they reach the farm stands and professional kitchens, reported co-owner Ian Calder-Piedmonte.
“If you took it right off the plant and it fully matured, you can eat it right away,” he said. “But generally, the quality will improve with time as the flavor develops. We will usually plant it sometime in June, the second half of June, depending on the weather. And we’ll usually harvest it sometime in September.”
Every year, the Amagansett-based farm harvests between 1,500 pounds and 1 ton of kabocha squash alone, weighing in at 3 to 4 pounds apiece, Calder-Piedmonte said. Traditionally green with off-white flecks and striations, kabocha can also be bright pumpkin orange, packed with the anti-oxidant beta-carotene, which translates to vision-protecting Vitamin A. The skin, which is edible, is additionally an excellent source of fiber.
For the first time, Balsam Farms has also harvested a third, miniature varietal that, at 1 pound each, are better suited for smaller households — or, in Paulette Satur’s case, disparate tastes. At Satur Farms in Cutchogue, she and her husband, chef Eberhard Müller, grow what they love. And unfortunately for her, it is not kabocha squash.
“I love them all. I love kabocha, delicata, a lot of the squashes. But he’s not a fan. He feels like it’s just a sponge for other flavors and he’d rather eat a vegetable,” she said with a laugh. “I eat them when he’s not around. When he’s gone and traveling, I’ll pick up a squash and roast it up for dinner. He’s at our Florida farm right now, so I should be eating squash tonight. I’ll be on the hunt, for sure.”
For those preparing the squash at home, 1770 House Restaurant’s Michael Rozzi says to exercise caution while washing it.
“I don’t think there’s any intimidation factor at all, except it’s big, it’s heavy, it can slide off the cutting board,” he said. “When you try to stick a knife in it to split it, the knife can really drift. Other than that, there’s no fear factor.”
Once it’s cleaned, all bets are off, according to the East Hampton-based executive chef, who encourages foodies to ditch butternut and acorn squashes, even pumpkins, in order to get creative.
“The kabocha squash could be applied across the spectrum, from a first course to something that went along with a braised meat, all the way, in some cuisines, to dessert,” he said. “You could make a pumpkin pie with a kabocha squash. You could make a kabocha squash crème brûlée, or, like a pumpkin bread, a kabocha squash bread. As much as it’s a squash and people are thinking automatically, ‘Let’s use it instead of acorn squash,’ I think it can be applied in places where pumpkin would be used, too.”
At age 46 — and with 32 years of experience in the kitchen — Rozzi said he is no longer interested in teaching people how to eat, and rather focuses his attention on cooking what they want, even if they don’t know it yet.
“I’m not doing kabocha squash cotton candy, selling that on Main Street in East Hampton every night to a big crowd,” he said. “We do things like soups and stuffed raviolis and make purees and roast it whole and put it in salads. It’s incredibly versatile and can be used as other squash can, and it brings its own characteristics to the table.”
Ultimately, butternut squash is the easier choice — “Everybody does the butternut squash, and I’m guilty of it, too. I love butternut squash,” he said — but now more than ever, the resurgence of heirloom farming is inspiring his year-round menus, and he may request a larger delivery of kabocha from Balsam Farms this season.
“The summer ended, the fall is here and I’m wrung out and I know I need to produce ideas for the menu,” he said. “We change the menus; we don’t just lock in and go to sleep on those things. I’m going one item at a time, and sometimes it takes one thing to open the floodgates.
“Maybe kabocha squash might just be it,” he continued. “We all need something, and maybe I needed that. It gets the creative juices flowing. I’m gonna lose some sleep over that now and see if I can’t come up with something.”