Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Elusive Kabocha

In a dimly lit room that always smelled vaguely of stewed tomatoes, I confessed in hushed tones to match, that dinner the night before had been a handful of stale chips with salsa. True, this wasn’t every night’s fare but I hadn’t yet mastered work with all of the other chores necessary to sustain an actual living human being. My acupuncturist without skipping a beat and with only a subtle raise to her eyebrow proceeded to offer simple and nutritionally superior alternatives. Pre-baked sweet potatoes left in their too big jackets were definitely out with mental images of shriveled paper bag brown bodies oozing sticky goo onto a plate. But eventually, lulled by the lush reverberating washes of Enya and utterly slack from the effects of well placed needles, I submitted to the notion of nourishment wedded to ease and decided to try out a macrobiotic delivery service to see what would happen.

In closer truth, my resistance to real food and sensible self care was a backlash to the corset of puritanical do not’s punishingly worn when I so doggedly pursued health as if it were something so far outside of me. For a time in gleeful defiance I romped through wine and soft ripened cheese, devoured more dim sum dumplings than was decent, and chased down big fat cookies with more. Soon it became clear that a more balanced approach to food might actually cultivate the health I was trying to regain. So with cautious curiosity I opened my bento style box waiting for life to change. Most of the suspects were typical characters in my former world: the reliable foundation of brown rice, barely marinated tofu triangles, steamed oh so drab and practical collards with a few whiffs of pickle. But off a little to the side, away from the pack, lured a wild streak of color that promised something fresh and a little unusual. Taken by a coterie of playful jack-o-lantern smiles I soon discovered that Kabocha has an intensity and superiority that its relatives lack. A forkful through saturated territory the color of the southwest setting sun, delivers a mouthful of sweet density reminiscent of eating New York style cheesecake straight from the refrigerator. The mouth feel too, reminds me of perfectly cooked if not a little bit under, hard boiled egg yolks. There is a substantial richness within that makes this flesh lean a little on the meaty side rather than that which dabbles with fruit.

But what makes me give this squash the final seal of approval is not that it tastes like the perfect amalgamation of pumpkin, sweet potato, chestnut, apple, and honey, making it stem over blossom-end better than various other orange flesh varieties I have sampled. But I adore the fact that once cooked; even the skin can be effortlessly eaten.

In a big salute to practicality, these compact low center of gravity winter squash store and stack quite well. Impervious to the outside world with their tough exterior, these Zen like emerald green boulders mind their own. In fact our superior beast continues to improve and ripen even a month off the vine in quiet contemplation. There is no extravagant loopy neck or outlandish asymmetry to distract hands and eyes once cutting commences. A focused intent filled split with a knife just off center is relatively all the effort needed to enjoy this cherished son of Japan. Quickly deseeded the halves can hastily be chunked or sliced to be incorporated into a myriad of soups, stews or bakes, or more simply left as is and roasted cut side down. Aesthetically, the glorious blaze of color only intensifies during the cooking process ultimately providing well needed balm to somber feelings associated with cooler temperatures. The transformation process is complete when outer skin and inner flesh meld into one another relaxed and nearly indistinguishable, rendering that which is usually wasted into something satisfying and edible.

Be forewarned that Kabocha is a bit of a koan initially appearing quite aloof when in reality it embodies mellow seasoned passion. Coincidentally on the east side I have spent the last 4 years earnestly chasing look a likes that disappointingly turn out to be Buttercups. Handsomely dignified Cucurbita maxima are nutritious and certainly economical in terms translated to time, dollars, and yield. But ultimately food that will feed and heal needs to thrill the soul and capture poetry in some small way too. This pumpkin from afar wrapped in a shawl of modesty has been the food to open my eyes beyond good and bad, restriction and permissiveness- and the one to finally close the chapter on stale chips and salsa. That is for dinner anyways.

Roasted Kabocha with Miso Butter and Scallions: adapted from Epicurious. After finally locating a kabocha, I am now waiting for it to ripen. Meanwhile I enjoyed this butter with Japanese sweet potatoes and decided it would work well with my favorite squash.

2-3 lb Kabocha cut approximately in half
3 Tbsp. softened butter more or less
1 Tbsp. brown rice miso, to taste
2 Tbsp. finely chopped green scallions

Directions: Preheat oven to 350 degrees and place Kabocha cut side down on a slightly greased baking sheet. I usually do not even remove the seeds and strings until afterwards when less scraping is involved. Plus, somehow I think it keeps the interior moister. Prepare the miso butter by mashing the softened butter with the miso and folding in the scallions. The ratio of ingredients is dependent upon your taste buds, tinker accordingly and remember if there is extra it can be used for other cooked vegetables. Bake the squash for about 45 min. but begin checking after half an hour for doneness, when the flesh will pierce easily with a knife. Once done, cool enough to safely handle, remove seeds if necessary and half each half again. Place a small pat of the seasoned butter into each of the cavity to melt and then serve.


nansita said...

Cally, I had so many unripe squashes last year, I felt like I had to give up! How do you tell when squash is ripe?
A Squash Lover ('specially Kabocha!!)

Callipygia said...

nansita- this is all very unscientific...the kabocha that I use to get at the Bowl/WFood seemed to have a flash of orange somewhere. According to wikipedia, kabocha ripens from 1.5-3 months after it is harvested. I'm just waiting a month after I bought it and studying the color as it

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

I have looked all over and finally found these at a local farm stand. Yippee! I can try this recipe now, though I'm guessing it would be wonderful with other varieties, too.

Gattina said...

Very inspiring recipe. Isn't it a salt-n-sweet combo wonder? One of our family dishes was sauted pumpkin with bean paste, the sweetness of this veg was magnified in the slightly salty undertone.
Personally I prefer sweet potato more, now I am thinking, deep-fried sweet potato with miso salsa?

Callipygia said...

lydia- I hope you will love it as much as I, marvelous flavor- makes a "better" pumpkin pie.

gattina-Wow I like the bean paste idea. Was it more black bean? I too like the idea of fried sweet potato fries with miso salsa. I can't even imagine what would be in that salsa.

Lucy said...

What a beauty, she is!

True. Health food must be seductive if it is to grab our attention. There is no other way - an ascetic life of steamed tofu is not one I for one am ready to embrace just yet.

Turning my attention to Gattina's suggestion momentarily...miso salsa! Now that's a bloody good idea...

Callipygia said...

lucy- And how glad I was to find her again. Nothing like bland tofu, looks like you have found a way to bring out its shining self.

Gattina said...

Calli, yes it was the black bean :D To be honest with you, I can't easily tell the difference, taste-wise, between it and miso... both are darn salty and only used a tiny bit in cooking.
Next time when I visit Asian store, I will look for kabocha (or sweet potato). Anyway, your "cucina moderna" style is so attractive, will I be distracted by another new ingredient in your next post, hehee.

judyyb said...

I think the Department of Health needs to hire you to write their blurbs, as you can make everything sound that much more delectable.
You can get hoardes of kids to put down their Ho-Ho's and reach for collard greens. (Use your power for good and not for evil.)Have you tried making a flan or a pie out of the Kabocha?

Callipygia said...

judyb- actually the kabocha is what I swap in for my pumpkin pie- definitely oomphs it up! I think we should have ho-hos and collards tho.