Why, yes, now that it is October, it is appropriate to bippity-boppity-boo everything you usually eat into the elevated, pumpkin version of itself. Every autumn, we see farmers' patches erupt with plump, round squash and immediately forget about our mourning of summer’s heirloom tomato season. And that’s understandable considering winter squash is back. If you’re guzzling pumpkin spice by the caffeinated gallon, you should get to know your pumpkins for who they really are. After all, pumpkins are the base of all the baking and cooking recipes you pin to your fall Pinterest board like a bride registering at Crate & Barrel.
There’s a blue ballet squash sitting in a basket in my kitchen, waiting to be carved and roasted for some dinner I have yet to plan. When a friend comes over, she picks it up and contemplates its petite round shape. “Is this real?” she asks, followed by, “Did you paint it?”
The first fact about pumpkins and winter squash is that not all pumpkins are the social-standard large orange pumpkins that have become the chosen clip art for Halloween. The grayish-blue blue ballet squash has a vibrant orange flesh that’s sweet, perfect for pies and roasting, and yes, for décor. But there is so much more underneath the pretty pumpkins you put on display on your stoop. Here, we’ll get to know them for what they’re worth underneath it all thanks to one Oregonian farmer.
Marven wore a button-up shirt dotted with Cucurbits (that’s the Latin term for the squash family) when I met him by the pile of striped and dotted gourds. People at the Portland University farmer’s market were drawn more to the appearance of grapes, but the squash was clearly the star of the show. Marven Winters is a farmer on Winters Farm, less than 20 miles east of Portland, and his towering display of squash is a site more exciting to me than the first crunchy step into a leaf pile. They weren’t only of the Jack-O-Lantern variety, the most popular and familiar pumpkin at the table thanks to the ritual of carving. There were green ones and small ones and ones with little stems. I had questions: What was edible? What was sweet? What would sound fanciest when I presented it to my friends in a pie?
“This is a Galeux d’Eysines pie,” I’ll announce. (Just a fancy way of saying a pumpkin pie made of an heirloom variety.)
And look, I know that the can of puree, ready to pick and cook, sitting stationary in the grocery store aisle is tempting, but I promise you that roasting your own squash yields better results. Your dish will have approximately zero preservatives, which will make your recipe approximately 100 percent better. Here's how to get started.
Varieties to Impress Your Friends With
Remember when Missy Elliott was all “boys, boys, all types of boys”? You could sing the same about squash. There are all types of them. Green, orange, yellow, even striped squash.
There are some that you might know are edible, like the sugar pumpkin. It looks like a miniature version of the Jack-O-Lantern and has a flesh perfect for roasting and pureeing into a pie filling. According to Farmer Marven, all squash are edible, there are just some that are better for eating. His seed supplier told him, “Gourds are edible, but they are so bitter you wouldn’t want to eat them.” Fair. We’ll leave them as home accessories.
Marven sent over a list of varieties he grows, including the fan-favorites: Acorn, Butternut, Delicata, and Spaghetti. And of the 22, there are probably 16 you haven’t heard of but should know about. Maybe you’ve seen them, probably on stoops filling out the fall home décor, but weren’t able to identify them as those pumpkins with pretty exteriors and edible interiors.
A fall stoop decoration favorite is the Jarrahdale. Its soft green hue that borders on gray is the perfect contrast to the gourds welcoming guests to your front door. Inside, the meat is in-your-face-shield-your-eyes bright orange and, Marven confirms, perfect for baking.
A few varieties Farmer Marven grows that you should ask your local farmer about are as follows: Danish/Acorn, Butternut, Buttercup, Carnival, Kabocha (Green, Red, and Gray), Long Island Cheese, Hubbard (several types), Pink Banana Jumbo, Speckled Hound, Speckled Pup, Sweet Meat (Oregon Heirloom), Delicata, Sweet Dumpling, Spaghetti, Marina Di Chioggia (Italian Heirloom), Naples Long (Italian heirloom), Triamble, Galuex D’Eysines (French heirloom), Turk’s Turban, Jarrahdale, Cream of the Crop, and Musque de Provence (Muscee de Provence, depending on your seed source, a French heirloom).
And these are just a few. Of the Cucurbita family, classified as a fruit, there are countless varieties of winter squash and pumpkins to keep you warm all season long.
How To Pick Them
You might not know what pumpkin is perfect for the plucking, and so you’ll go for the brightest one, so clean it’s bouncing the sun off of its curves and practically preserving your summer tan in early autumn. But, really, when picking a winter squash, it’s okay if there are a few dents in it. The Galeux d’Eysines, also known as The Peanut Pumpkin, is freckled with blemishes that would typically warrant an Accutane prescription. But the apparent flaws are actually what makes the meat so sweet. They’re “produced through a process known as ‘corking,’ where the sugars break through the skin and form the peanut shell, like scabs, which is a sign of its sweetness,” Marven explains. As long as they don’t squish in your hands and don’t appear to have been beaten by the weather, the squash should be ripe for the picking and preparing.
Cooking Winter Squash
You can prepare your squash in a few ways. But my favorite is to roast and puree so that I can add it to morning pancakes, quick breads like banana bread, and smoothies (or in pumpkin juice, shown in the video above) for a crisp day.
To make puree, simply spread quartered or halved squash pieces, cut-side down, on a baking sheet and bake in the oven until fork-tender. Once cool enough to touch, the skin of the squash will peel right off. Transfer the cooked meat to a food processor and blend. This process is numbingly easy, and you can crush an episode of your favorite show on your computer as the squash basks in the oven heat. Once you have your puree, you can store in the fridge for multiple uses or dive into whatever recipe or Pinterest pin you have chosen to bake from.
Marven, of course, has some more show-stopping recommendations. He suggests baking delicata squash with “apple or pear in the seed cavity.” The sweet fall fruit cradled by the tender squash is sure to delight taste buds. This is how you chew on autumn and fill yourself with fall, all totally free of artificial tinkering.
Whether you’re planning on making a pie, risotto, cake, cookies, quick bread, not-so-quick bread, or enjoy roasted with a little salt and caraway, talk to the person staffing the farm stand before veering into the grocery store. And to get you in the squash-cooking spirit, here is my favorite and not-so-difficult way to utilize the fruit.
Overnight Honeynut Squash-Rosemary Challah Bread French Toast Bake
This is a recipe that can almost literally be thrown together. The night before breakfast, you’ll assemble the bake that takes no longer than five minutes to prepare after the squash has been roasted. Your reward the next morning will be a sweet yet savory bread pudding that will have you believing you are inhaling fall.
½ cup honeynut squash puree, about two small squashes
3 tbsp light brown sugar
½ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp ground ginger
1/8 tsp cardamom
1/8 tsp white pepper
dash of salt
½ tsp rosemary, minced, about 1 sprig
1 ½ cups canned coconut milk
½ tsp vanilla extract
5 large eggs
1 loaf of challah bread
1 honeycrisp apple, sliced
Maple syrup, to serve
Pre-heat oven to 425 degrees F.
To roast your honeynut squash, slice the squash in half, remove the seeds, and place cut-side down on a baking sheet. Cook for 25 to 30 minutes, until fork-tender. Allow the squash to cool before peeling the skin off and placing meat in a food processor. Process until smooth.
Combine the light brown sugar, cinnamon, ground ginger, cardamom, white pepper, salt, and minced rosemary together in a mixing bowl. Add in the honeynut puree and fold together with a rubber spatula until the spices are thoroughly blended with the puree.
Stir in the coconut milk and vanilla extract before whisking in the eggs, one at a time, until you have a smooth, silky mixture.
Slice the loaf of challah bread into half-inch slices and arrange in a 9x13 baking dish. Grace the fluffy slices with the honeynut squash mixture, spreading evenly over the dish. The challah slices will act as sponges and absorb the mixture as it sits in the fridge. Wrap the dish tightly with cling wrap and let the whole thing rest in your fridge overnight.
The next morning, preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Bake the French toast for 45 minutes and serve with fall’s finest Honeycrisp apples and maple syrup.